Friday, October 15, 2010


My Taos Toolbox pal Oz requested an example of a properly-used semicolon in a comment recently. I'm up to my ass in alligators at the moment, and when I went to give myself a quick semicolon brush-up, I found that there's a lot more to the matter than I'd remembered.

So I'm waiting for breathing space, but there are more OCD-styling semicolon thrills ahead. Will Van Gundy prove correct? (Spoiler alert: probably not.) Will I prove to have spoken with more authority than knowledge? (Spoiler alert: of course.)

Coming soon! If I'm not just gassing.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010


So, what's up with me lately? I'll tell you what's up with me lately. Things are great and kind of awful at the same time. And I just realized that I'm in a particularly tricky position right now.

Right now things are different for me than they ever have been before. Instead of being a creep alone in his room, I'm a lovable eccentric with a small audience and a growing circle of professional acquaintances. Instead of doing this weird, half-formed art and writing, I'm creating at a higher level than I'd ever seriously aspired to. There is a shift in my relationship with the missus; I'm gaining status and a whiff of romance is in the air. I'm currently in a position to make some substantial changes in my living conditions. And it's been nearly six months since I've had a major episode of mental illness. I've gotten a little shitty around the edges here and there, but I've exhibited no genuinely aberrant behavior.

But in the last few weeks, I've started having episodes of insomnia again. Rather than waking up at two or three and going back to bed at three or four, I'm waking up and staying up. Because I'm working or fiddling.

Or, mainly, worrying.

I've managed to overcommit myself and I'm not managing it well. Actually, my suspicion is that I've commited myself to an appropriate degree, but I suck.

That sentence has a familiar look. Let's rephrase that. I don't suck, but I'm going through a period of transition and I wish I was handling it more gracefully. I wish I was carrying out my obligations in a more generous and timely fashion. And I'm going to have to make some life choices (like buying more prepared foods, or pre-making and freezing meals) that I'm not crazy about if I'm going to pursue my ambitions fully.

Right now I'm facing a constant demand for one thing or another from me. An illustration here, a critique there, and then there's the missus, who wants me to do stuff with her and around the house and she's not above yelling and she probably has a point.

And she wants me to write her a promotional piece for her business, but I've been asked for a crit and I've been putting it off and I'm working on it and I get an email asking if the crit is in the works and I say yes and the missus asks me if her piece is ready and she sounds like she's upset and I have to go to class and I haven't done homework all week I'll have to do it in a chunk and my stomach hurts I've got to sign up with California Lawyers for the Arts and find out about health care so I can get a checkup and when was the last time I checked in with Twitter but it's time to make fucking lunch for the missus and all this crap is piling up in the studio and I need to get those blinds put in I can hardly see the fucking screen and I've got to pick up Poppy from school jesus I sweat so much everywhere I go I've taken to carrying a rag crap should I get a macro lens for the next batch of Swillistrations or is there a magnifying setup that would work what if magic was a peasant martial art that allowed an unarmed combatant to take on a member of the local warrior elite that would motherfucking rock I could base it on my high school gang fucking have to write that oh crap I need to xerox this shit scanning it in takes to long crap where's my pen I should be asleep right now why am I looking at musical instruments on line I haven't touched the novel in three fucking days shit shit shit --

Like I said, right now I have all the ingredients for a sweet life and I'm managing to dick things up to a limited extent. Not entirely, thank goodness. If I let myself continue to lose sleep because I'm worried about all the wonderful things going on in my life, I'll screw myself up. I do not want to slide back into that fucking cycle of madness if I can avoid it.

Here's how that goes. I eat one meal a day -- which I've been doing for some time. That interferes a bit with sleep, so the insomnia kicks in. Three, four hours sleep last night, so there we go. The lack of eating and the insomnia feed into each other until other symptoms kick in, like irritability, pacing, compulsive verbalization, perhaps a bit of finger- 0r lip-chewing, and by that point, well, look at the image at the top of this post.

I'm currently at the point where I'm constantly working and I can't feel as if I'm getting anywhere, and every time anyone makes a perfectly reasonable request of me I feel like curling up in a ball and screaming while big chunks of concrete are dropped on me until the screaming stops. So I need to prioritize.

I'm halfway through a critique. Finish it, and then no more online critiques until I've got breathing space. Then write the promotional piece for the missus. And then do my homework for Grammar.

No. Grammar first. This is my fucking livelihood, let's be serious. I'm putting the other things ahead of it in an expression of what some would call a martyr complex.

Then crit. Then Karen's piece.

Then regular doses of Grammar rather than a pre-class cram. And tackle fucking Swill. I have been anxious to do the next batch of Swillistrations since I finished the last. I've refined my system, I'm adding a fascinating new element that will help me ground the images with their inspiration in the novel, I have new tools.

But now that I think about it, there's a big mistake I've made in priorities already.

Why did I write this garble instead of going to bed? Now I've got to get dressed to go shopping and come home and work on my homework and hopefully get some time in on the crits and the promotional piece before I go to class it'll be another late night damnit and --

And the missus yelled at me to go shopping, and I avoided screaming at her. When I explained why screaming was even on the menu, she got it. My not blaming her for anything helped. Which is convenient, because I would have had to work to blame her. And that would take time I should be spending on other things. I need to quit panicking, take a breath, and make some decisions.

Connections. That's my blessing and my curse, is my mind's ability to correlate its contents. I need to stop seeing the forest and start looking at the trees one at a time, instead of being overwhelmed this baffling series of interconnected tasks every I contemplate any labor.

Oafboy? Tomorrow, maybe Friday, you sit your ass down and make some kind of concrete plan, a one-step-at-a-time deal.

And you move sleep to the top of your list of priorities. You see that thing at the top of the post, boy? You seen one of those before? Can you take a motherfucking hint?

Get some sleep, Oafboy. And stop worrying so much.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Punctuation with Van Gundy

So The Other Van Gundy put this up as part of his comments on my post on writing advice.

"What makes a semicolon, em dash, or colon any fancier than a comma or period? They're just different kinds of pauses. Seems like bad advice; I wouldn't want any part of the toolbox off-limits due to perceived fanciness."

I started to reply, when I realized that I was generating a blog post rather than a comment, so here we go. Please note that this isn't a slam. I'm glad Van Gundy brought this up, because I wasn't clear. And yes, I'm going to use Van Gundy's comment as an example of what I'm talking about. I'm not doing it to be a wiseass, Van Gundy. You're obviously a decent writer, and you weren't grossly discourteous or anything.

But you were a little more sure of your position than was warranted.

Here's what I'm getting. First, I get the impression you thought I was advising against the use of anything but periods and commas. Not at all, buddy. I suggested doing an exercise involving strictly avoiding them because I was dealing with a manuscript that had problems with the punctuation, and the problems fell into a pattern I've seen over and over again.

And my use of the term 'fancy' was one that's clearly subject to misinterpretation. Let me explain.

Those forms of punctuation are fancy because they have much more specialized uses than periods or commas. There are specific circumstances under which they are appropriate, and if they are used outside those circumstances they're clumsy and distracting to the reader. Worse; they can reduce a writer's narrative credibility.

When you wrote, "They're just different kinds of pauses," you should have left out the just. They are different kinds of pauses, and they have different effects, and if you use them injudiciously? Your writing will suffer. The colon, the semi-colon, and the dash all set up a sense of anticipation in the reader. They are a message that the phrase that follows will have an immediate and dramatic impact on the phrase just read.

The ellipsis, on the other hand, says that the reader should take a moment to ponder what has just been said...

If you use a high density of these kinds of punctuation, you are in effect giving the reader a series of stage directions, and reading becomes a very different experience. This can be done properly -- may I draw the brilliant works of Avram Davidson to your attention? he does this beautifully -- but it is a feat for a master.

When I say that misuse of these punctuation marks costs you credibility with readers, it's because each of them issues an order, and makes a promise. As an example, a semi-colon primes the reader to expect a close enough relationship so that the phrase following the semi-colon should make the phrase preceding it take on new meaning. Overuse of these variant punctuations makes the manuscript more tiring to read.

So now I'm gonna be a dick, Van. Honestly, what you wrote makes me think that I probably wouldn't bother making that particular note on one of your manuscripts. But the particular sentence in which I think I've located an error is irresistible. Sorry, Van.

"Seems like bad advice; I wouldn't want any part of the toolbox off-limits due to perceived fanciness."

As a reader, that seems flat and anticlimactic to me, specifically because of the use of the semi-colon. The second phrase doesn't add anything to the first. It repeats it. Let's see.

"Seems like bad advice. I wouldn't want any part of the toolbox off-limits due to perceived fanciness."

I think that reads more strongly. The second phrase seems like clarification rather than repetition. This is a very mild example, and is a matter of taste. I can see how someone might think the sense of flow in the first version was nice.

They'd be defensibly wrong, but wrong. If the full meaning, including emotional tone, is the same, simpler phrasing is always to be preferred.

I mean, that was me being picky. But when you find manuscripts where there are more semi-colons than periods, where there are multiple dashes inside of a paragraph, and then you compare them to manuscripts where all variant punctuation is avoided? The simpler punctuation is more readable, more graceful, and carries more meaning. To a stunning degree. If you do the comparison, you will not debate. You may have a personal fondness for convoluted prose -- and I do -- but if you want to communicate, speak as simply as you possibly can while still saying what you mean.

And that goes for punctuation as much as anything else.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Come to the City and Strengthen Your Writing through Intellectual Labor

Well, I was planning on performing at this reading. It was going to be my very first time, and I was so excited. I was asked if I had any preference; I said I'd be able to clear space for this no matter what else I was doing.

I was wrong; something was going on that had slipped my mind. Something I should have posted about a while ago. I'm going to be attending Nick Mamatas's class on writing the popular novel.

Here's the course, and how you can sign up for it.

And here's Nick's own description.

I'll be bringing copies of the first chapter of my novel Ghost Rock to the first class, if that offers you any discouragement. So come on! Anyone who's reading this and is closer to San Francisco than, say, Milwaukee should at least give it some wistful consideration.