Finding time to write consistently can be a challenge for me when school starts up again each fall, and the number of obligations on my to-do list increases exponentially. One way I make sure to maintain the mindset that writing is, indeed, a priority, and not a task I can just schluff off in the face of my other responsibilities (that’s right–I think of writing as responsibility; otherwise, pushing it to the wayside is too easy), is by including it as an item on my to-do list. But I don’t simply write, “write.” (At least, not usually.)
My habit is to break my writing goals down into smaller, more manageable pieces. Instead of just writing “write,” I specify the writing goal(s) I have for that day, a series of smaller steps leading up to the ultimate goal(s), which might range from finishing this blog post to finishing my novel to simply maintaining and supporting my writing habit. For example, I might write: “write–> blog post” or “write–>diary” or “write–>novel” or “write–> register for annual conference.” Sometimes, I might break a big writing project down into even smaller parts. Take my novel for example. Right now on my to-do list, the item related to the completion of my novel appears as “write–>order chapters,” because my current goal is to figure out the best order in which to arrange what I have written (my third attempt at a restructure), as well as the best structure (do I want to alternate between the two families, or break the novel into two or three separate parts…?).
Though the projects aren’t done, I made strides–or at least took baby steps.
Now, that all sounds well and good. But there are days (more than I’d like) when a simple lack of time (or energy) forces me to draw a single line through at least one, if not all, of my writing to-dos. The important thing to remember on these days is that Rome wasn’t built in a day, and even small progress is better than no progress. Yesterday’s writing to-dos, for example, included restructuring the chapters of my novel, writing an essay for submission to the Modern Love column of The New York Times (a lofty goal, I know, but so is writing a novel), revising an essay for The Richmond Times-Dispatch, registering for the James River Writers Annual Conference, and preparing and mailing my First Pages page. Those literary to-dos, though, had to share my time with a full day of work; a family birthday dinner; a long walk with my dogs; and laundry, dishes, and other chores. I successfully prepared and mailed my First Pages page and registered for the Annual Conference, and I revised and sent in the article for The Richmond Times-Dispatch. I was a little less productive when it came to my Modern Love piece and my novel. But I’m satisfied, because though the projects aren’t done, I made strides–or at least took baby steps. I worked with the time I did have. Regarding the Modern Love piece, all I managed to do was scribble a couple more ideas onto a piece of scratch paper and read headlines of Modern Love stories online. Regarding the total reconstruction of my novel, I numbered all the note cards–one for each chapter–that I hand-wrote last week so I can later shuffle them around like puzzle pieces and determine their optimal order, and thus the best structure for the novel overall. My original ambitions were to compose a couple paragraphs of the Modern Love piece and conceive at least one (preferably two) possible structures for my novel. Well, I haven’t made it that far yet, but I’m inching closer. And the important thing is to keep on keepin’ on.
For teachers in my city (including me), school starts tomorrow (though our students won’t return to their desks until the following week). For English teachers in my high school (also including me), this means the newest standards of the MLA format go into effect tomorrow,
as well. The guidelines we have become accustomed to teaching for the last several years have changed, and our students are expected to begin employing the updates this fall. If you are a teacher who teaches the MLA format, or a student who learned the format last year, the changes are pertinent, as we all must begin using them now. Below is a look at some, though not all, of the major changes.
When citing a book in the works cited, one is no longer required to include the city of publication or the medium (in the case of a book, print). A works cited entry for a book in the updated edition would look like this:
Author’s Last Name, First Name. Book Title. Publisher, Year of Publication.
Lee, Harper. Go Set a Watchman. Harper Collins, 2015.
Articles in Print Periodicals
Labels have been added to works cited entries for articles in print periodicals. A works cited entry for an article in a print periodical would look like this:
Author’s Last Name, First Name. “Article Title.” Magazine or Newspaper Title, Edition, Date
of Publication, Page Numbers.
Creasey, Amanda S. “Savor the Sweet.” Richmond Times Dispatch, 24 July 2016, p. F9.
Note that if an article spans multiple pages, the abbreviation would change from a single “p.” to two: “pp.” For example, an article that ran from page 5 to 14 would be cited as pp. 5-14.
Did you know…?
MLA is an acronym for Modern Language Association.
Articles on Websites
In earlier editions of MAL, brackets <> enclosed the URL, and often, the inclusion of the full URL was optional. It would have looked like this:
In the new edition, one must include the full URL, but it need not be enclosed in brackets.
As with books, one no longer needs to include the medium (in this case, in the older version, web).
Under MLA 8, a works cited entry for an article on a website would be formatted like this:
Author’s Last Name, First Name. “Article Title.” Website Title, Publisher or Sponsor of Site,
Date of Publication, URL.
French, Richard. “On Heroism.” American Museum of History, American University,
9 March 2015, amh.org/2015/03/09/on-heroism/.
Changes to the rules regarding citing an entire website resemble those regarding citing an article found on a website.
The updated format looks like this:
Author’s Last Name, First Name. Website Title. Publisher or Sponsor, Date Range of
Morgan, Smith. Poe Museum. The Poe Museum, 2012-16, poemuseum.org.
The Hanging Indent
Please note that the hanging indent is still used in the newest version of the MLA standards, but depending on the device used to view this post, it may or may not show up on your screen.
If you are unfamiliar with the term “hanging indent,” it refers to the way an individual entry is formatted in an MLA works cited. The first line of an entry always begins at the left margin. Any subsequent lines of that entry are indented to the right. Think of it as the reverse of paragraphing in the body of a paper, where you indent to the right only the first line of a paragraph, and all subsequent lines of that paragraph are flush with the left margin.
This post is a very basic overview of some of the most obvious changes to the MLA format. For further information, consider checking out the following sources:
Once again, I’m early with this week’s Word of the Week post, in an effort not to miss it. Sunday, will again be a travel day for me, as I will be coming home from my last trip of summer break, which ends on Monday, making this week’s word, “lacuna,” a fairly appropriate one.
As a teacher, I often field the question: What do you do all summer?–an implication that surely, with a two-month lacuna in the demands of my job, I will get bored. I can assure you, that is never a concern.
I came across the word “lacuna” in the novel I am (still) currently reading, 2666.Merriam-Webster’s simple definition of the word is “a gap or blank space in something: a missing part.” The full definition also includes “a small cavity, pit, or discontinuity in an anatomical structure.” Dictionary.com expands the definition to a third possibility: “an air space in the cellular tissue of plants.” “Lacuna” can also be applied to music, denoting an extended silence in a piece. I think my favorite definition for the word is probably the most general: “an unfilled space or interval; a gap,” which is the result of a simple Google search of the word (another result of said search being that The Lacuna is also a novel by Barbara Kingsolver, in case you’re interested).
This definition appeals to me for two reasons. One: Its broadness allows for the word’s application to so many spheres–music, language, work, manuscripts and texts, career, romance, physical landscape, memory, sleep–there could be a “lacuna” in practically anything. Two: My summer break is a kind of lacuna–a hiatus from the harried day-to-day of late August through mid June, when my days begin at 4:45 in the morning and often don’t end until long past my point of exhaustion.
And although “lacuna” denotes a sort of emptiness, a something missing, I can honestly say that my summer days are jam-packed–just not with stress and work and duties. My summer was indeed a lacuna in the daily grind, but was in no way devoid of activity. So, to answer the question with which we began: What did I do with my summer break–how did I fill that seeming lacuna? Here’s the short list:
Visited family in Florida twice.
Visited family in Michigan.
Traveled to Pennsylvania twice, once for a family reunion and once to see a friend.
Visited family in the Outer Banks twice.
Worked on my novel in various capacities.
Submitted pieces of my writing to various publications.
Worked on lesson plans for the upcoming school year.
Yesterday morning, I attended my final writing critique group meeting of the summer. Next week marks the start of my school year, the demands of which will make attending critique group meetings impossible. I will miss the insightful, honest feedback of my peers, but truth be told, I always left critique meetings feeling discouraged, deflated, and defeated, my writing having been found guilty of a litany of literary sins.
My hawk-eyed fellow writers advised me to use stronger verbs instead of adverbs (a rule of thumb I am of course aware of, but apparently incapable of applying to my own writing–though I am keen to point out the weakness in my students’ work).
In short, each meeting was a reminder that I am not, after all, the best writer in the entire universe.
They accused me of head-hopping, a name for the writerly sin of jumping perspectives at will and seemingly randomly–essentially, inconsistent point of view. I thought I was just writing in third-person omniscient.
They suggested I tighten up my prose, stop overwriting, restructure my plot, and rename a few of my characters.
In short, each meeting was a reminder that I am not, after all, the best writer in the entire universe. In other words: These meetings ground me. They bring me back down to earth and humble me.
And you know what? I need that. I need that, and to grow a thicker skin, as well as to remember my purpose for attending a critique group in the first place.
It wasn’t for accolades. It wasn’t so someone would say my idea was fascinating or the ending of one of my chapters was masterful (thought those moments were nice when they did happen). It wasn’t for my ego. It was for feedback–constructive criticism. A critique group is where you go when you want someone to tell you that, yes, you really do look fat in that dress–but here are a few options that make you look slim and slender; here is the way not to look fat in that dress. A critique group, like the sister or best friend you can trust to be honest, often has to be cruel to be kind. If I am blind to my overuse of adverbs, I need someone to open my eyes. If a particular scene is confusing or poorly written, I need someone to tell me.
A critique group is where you go when you want someone to tell you that, yes, you really do look fat in that dress–but here are a few options that make you look slim and slender; here is the way not to look fat in that dress. A critique group, like the sister or best friend you can trust to be honest, often has to be cruel to be kind.
At my first critique group meeting, the members communicated at the beginning that every criticism offered had one goal: To help all of us produce the best writing we could. And I’ll be the first to admit, it was hard sometimes (all the time) to hear that what I had brought to the group was in fact far more imperfect than I could have ever imagined, that I had not yet produced the best writing I could.
But even as I walked out to my car at the close of a meeting, wondering why I even bother writing at all, feelings of inspiration, motivation, and encouragement always began to bubble up, and my bruised ego started to mend. Within minutes of getting into my car and turning the ignition, I was already eager to get back to my piece and improve it, applying the kind, thoughtful advice I had just minutes ago viewed as a personal affront to my writing ability.
An inflated ego isn’t going to supply that kind of motivation, or propel me any closer to my goals.
I usually reserve Sundays for my Word of the Week posts, but as tomorrow will be a travel day for me, I’m posting this particular Word of the Week today, which is fitting, as I came across the word during one of the many trips I took this summer.
A few weeks ago, I drove to Washington, DC, to take a series of aptitude tests at the Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation (side note: so informative and interesting; I highly recommend the experience). The testing spanned a two-day period, so I stayed the night with my aunt and uncle who live just outside the city. After dinner, we sat in their cozy family room, discussing logistics for the next morning. They advised me to take the metro to the city the next day, parking my car in the deck on Glebe Road.
Then my aunt asked my uncle, “Did you tell her what ‘glebe’ means?”
My uncle had not, and I had never thought to ask, having assumed it was someone’s last name.
According to Merriam-Webster.com, “glebe” is a noun referring to a cultivated plot of land, usually owned by and generating revenue for a church or parish. It sits at the bottom 30% of word popularity, which explains why the only place I can recall ever having seen it in print is on the road sign near the parking deck where I did indeed park the next day.
The word is pretty archaic, but could come in handy if you are writing historical fiction, for example.
Now, go forth! You have been linguistically empowered!
One of the reasons English is often cited as one of the most difficult languages to learn is its many homophones, one of the most infamous pairs being “than” and “then.” What follows is an extremely simplified explanation of their proper use.
“Than” with an “a” expresses comparisons. One way to remember this might be to associate the “a” in “than” with the “a” in “comparison.” An example of the proper use of “than” would be:
Ian is taller than Sally is.
The above sentence compares Ian’s height to Sally’s.
“Then” with an “e” relates to time. One way to remember this might be to associate the “e” in “then” with the “e” in “time.” An example of the proper use of “then” would be:
Ian was the taller of the two children, but then Sally grew.
The above sentence helps express when in time Ian was no longer taller than Sally–after she grew.
A sentence that uses both “than” and “then” properly would be:
At 854 pages on my nook, Roberto Bolano’s novel 2666 is the lengthiest on my summer to-read list. This post may be slightly premature, as I am only 76 pages into the 854 pages that comprise this novel, but I felt the need to provide my observations as they stand thus far.
One of the first things of note is that one of the many reasons I wanted to read this book is actually mentioned in this book: Salman Rushdie is described as “an author neither of them happened to think was much good but whose mention seemed pertinent” (75) . The narrator tells us this during a scene where two main characters, Pelletier and Espinoza, are brutally kicking a Pakistani cab driver who has insulted them and the woman with whom they are both in love. The irony in all this for me is the stance taken on Rushdie. When I heard an NPR story about 2666, it sounded reminiscent of Rushdie’s novel, Midnight’s Children, which I thoroughly enjoyed and studied, and which consequently contributed to my desire to read Bolano’s book–yet Rushdie is somewhat disparaged, albeit in passing, on the pages of the book.
A similar irony occurs regarding the role of translators to world literature. They are viewed somewhat disdainfully–or perhaps pitifully–by the main characters, and yet the English version of the book I am reading is a translation from the original Spanish. I can’t help but wonder what the translators thought as they transcribed less-than-complementary lines about their profession.
On page 70, Bolano makes a delicious use of ambiguity. Two characters, Liz Norton and either Pelletier or Espinoza, are discussing the possibility of a menage a trois with either Pelletier or Espinoza, whichever character isn’t the current conversation partner.
“‘I don’t think we’ll ever suggest it,’ said the person on the phone.
‘”I know,’ said Norton. ‘You’re afraid to. You’re waiting for me to make the first move.’
‘”I don’t know,’ said the person on the phone, ‘maybe it isn’t as simple as that.'”
Of course, by referring to one of the speakers simply as “the person on the phone,” there is no telling if said person is Pelletier or Espinoza. I’ve been wondering about the purpose for this ambiguity, and so far, all I can come up with is maybe it simply doesn’t matter who is talking–an effort to show us how insignificant the individualities of the two men may be to Norton, who is romantically involved with both of them.
While Bolano employs ambiguity in the dialog above, he employs wit and rhythm in a delicious example on page 68, when Pelletier and Espinoza have both come to visit Norton, only to find her with another man, a young stranger (to them) named Pritchard. As you might imagine, the situation is tense:
“‘Are you insulting me?’ Pritchard wanted to know.
“‘Do you feel insulted?’ asked Epsinoza….”
I just love Espinoza’s response.
A third way Bolano creatively expresses conversation is with a deliberate lack of dialog. It sounds counter-intuitive, doesn’t it–that you could write a conversation in which absolutely no dialog occurs? But when Pelletier and Espinoza talk on the phone about their relationships with Liz Norton, Bolano presents the conversation like this:
“The first twenty minutes were tragic in tone, with the word fate used ten times and the word friendship used twenty-four times. Liz Norton’s name was spoken fifty times, nine of them in vain…. The word love was spoken twice, once by each man. The word horror was spoken six times and the word happiness once (by Espinoza)…” (44).
Dialog with no dialog, forcing the reader to infer the use of the words and imagine the conversation.We have to fill in the blanks ourselves, use our own imaginations.
In addition to various treatments of dialog, the book so far has been rife with allusion–to Medusa, Perseus, Rushdie, and Napoleon, just to name a few.
I’ve also noticed some juxtaposition that precisely expresses the paradox of life, such as this example on page 61: “Couples or elegantly dressed single women passed briskly, toward Serptentine Gallery or the Albert Memorial, and in the opposite direction men with crumpled newspapers or mothers pushing baby carriages headed toward Bayswater Road.”
Finally, as little of the book as I have so far read, it has already provided me with six weeks’ worth of Words of the Week. Look for them in September (I can’t promise I’ll have a free Sunday before then!).
Basic conclusion so far: It’s worth the read (at least, the first 76 pages are).
Last Friday morning, my friend Lauren and I set out with my two dogs for a day trip to the Northern Neck of Virginia. We anticipated a day of sunshine and salty breezes, scouring the sand for sea glass and cooling our skin in the brackish water on the quiet beach, where the fresh waters of the Potomac River begin to mix with the saltier waves of the Chesapeake Bay. Our plan was to leave Richmond by 8 o’clock, landing ourselves on the warm sand by ten. We’d spend about four hours in a state of summer solitude, just two friends and two dogs soaking up the sunshine, catching up on each others’ lives, and strolling the strip of sand that is the beach. By 2 o’clock, we’d enjoy cruising the country roads home.
Last June, I equally optimistically started a different kind of journey: writing my first (and so far only) novel. I was convinced I could accomplish this goal before the end of the summer. I wrote almost every single day, anywhere from 500-3500 words a day. I spent hours outside on my back deck, typing away, bringing my characters and their circumstances to life, my whippet and beagle by my side. My plan was to have a near-perfect draft finished before another school year began in the fall.
After a pit stop or two, Lauren, the dogs, and I found ourselves finally on the road leading to the beach. This road is the absolute only way to reach the beach. As we rounded the last curve before the straightway to the water, we were greeted by three or four standing vehicles, a fire truck, a utility truck, and a few people pacing the street or leaning nonchalantly against their cars. The orange lights perched atop the utility truck were silently flashing, as were the lights atop the fire truck. Directly in front of the two emergency vehicles, a large, downed tree draped in power lines like tinsel on a Christmas tree blocked the road.
I slowed to a stop.
“Well,” I said. “This is probably the most exciting thing to happen here since forever.”
A man dressed in blue jeans and a T-shirt approached and, hoping for an explanation, I rolled down my window and learned that though the fire department was on-scene, the power lines were still live, and the firefighters could do nothing about the downed tree or blocked road until the power company shut off power. No one knew when that might be.
“What do we do?” I said. “Do we just turn around and go home?” It seemed such a sad solution after driving so far, with such high hopes.
Lauren and I deliberated for a few minutes as to our other options, and adjusted our plans. At my parents’ recommendation, we drove to a small, public beach about 15 minutes away, hoping to let the dogs stretch their legs in the sand, and sit on the beach to eat the sack lunches we had packed. Then, perhaps we would revisit the scene of the fallen tree in hopes that everything had been cleared up, and the road reopened.
When the end of August arrived, my novel was closer to finished–but not actually so. That was okay, I told myself. The James River Writers Annual Conference was in October, and I could pitch to an agent then. I simply adjusted myself to the idea of a new deadline: October. As long as I was finished by October, and ready to pitch to an agent, I would be satisfied. And so, whenever I could find time between grading research papers and essays, I kept writing. The goal seemed achievable.
As we pulled into the little gravel parking lot at the end of the country road to Vir Mar Beach, the skies darkened slightly and the breeze picked up, the day feeling more like late October than late July.
“Watch. Now that we’ve finally found a beach, it’s gonna rain,” Lauren joked. No sooner had she spoken than a few stray drops landed with quiet taps on the windshield. Despite the spitting skies, I harnessed up the dogs and led them up the wooden steps, over the dune, and onto the beach.
Or at least what was left of it.
The tide must have been in, and it was so windy that the waves were rolling up almost to the sea grasses at the base of the dune, leaving only a small strip of damp sand, at its widest point perhaps a foot thick. In addition, the beach itself ran only about thirty to fifty feet in either direction before we were abruptly met with “Private Beach” signs, warning us back onto public sands. I walked the dogs to one end of the beach and back in less than three minutes, and Lauren and I ate our lunches in my parked car.
I wasn’t done with my novel by October, though I did make my first (albeit sorry) attempt at a pitch to a kind agent at the James River Writers Annual Conference, who told me she couldn’t really do anything without a manuscript, but generously offered to read sample pages if I sent them her way when I had a completed draft. I left the conference feeling both discouraged and inspired. I had not met my second deadline: my novel was still incomplete. I had not met my goal: I did not have an agent. But I did have reason to keep writing. So I did.
As Lauren and I finished our lunches, the same breeze blowing water across the beach to effectively obscure it, became more helpful, and began blowing away the low, dark clouds to allow the sun to make an appearance.
“Should we go back and see if the tree and power lines are all taken care of?” I asked.
Lauren agreed, and we were pleased to round the curve and find a clear route to the beach.
Just two days before Christmas, I finally completed the first draft of my novel. Few accomplishments in my life have been so satisfying, and though I knew my work was not done, I could finally say it: I wrote a book.
Although we had a mere hour before we needed to head home in time to be ready for our separate evening obligations, Lauren and I were rewarded for our determination to reach the beach. The sun broke through the clouds and warmed the sand. The water was clear and not as roiling as it had been earlier in the day, when we had seen it spilling onto the sands of little Vir Mar Beach. We found handfuls of colorful sea glass, and the dogs gleefully sniffed and wandered and waded.
By this June, I had completed three drafts of my novel, and felt ready to start the querying process. In July, I was thrilled to see an e-mail in my inbox from one of the agents to whom I had sent a query and some sample pages. My enthusiasm was dampened slightly when I opened the message, a polite and warmhearted thanks-but-no-thanks. I was not surprised, really, but I was somewhat disappointed. Still, I press on, more or less undaunted, and am currently working on the fourth draft, which I hope will fare better in its quest to find an agent, when the time comes.
While it was hard to go home so soon after finally reaching our destination, I found inspiration in the ultimate result of the day. Lauren, the dogs, and I had had to go through several obstacles to reach a goal we originally took for granted as easy to attain. We had had to be flexible. We had had to be persistent. We had had to remain steadfast in our goal despite many reasons to give in: a blocked road and seemingly inclement weather, with no clear end in sight for either. And because we had succeeded in all these, we had gotten an hour more on the beach than we would have gotten otherwise.
The connection between that Friday adventure and my writing is clear to me: We could have turned around, abandoning our goal altogether, at the first sign of trouble. But we didn’t. Many times in my writing process, I could have done the same. But I haven’t.
My dedication and determination to not only finish my book, but also to find an agent and publisher for it, once it is more polished, and Lauren’s and my dedication and determination to just make it to the beach are one in the same. I am confident that if, like Lauren and I last Friday, I can remain optimistic, perseverant, and dedicated, I will ultimately hold my book in my hand–and maybe someday, see it in the hands of others. And when that day comes, I will finally be able to sit back, turn my face to the sun, and bask on my own beach.
Just for a few minutes–before I start writing again.