One of the most common errors I see in my students’ writing is the combining of “a lot” into one word (that doesn’t actually exist): “alot.”
The main difference between “alot” and “a lot” is that one is a word, and one is not.
Many of us are so accustomed to seeing “alot” that we ascribe to the misconception that it’s a word, but–surprise!–it’s not. The proper way to employ “alot” is actually to separate it into two words, a noun and its article: “a lot.” One helpful way to remember this is to think of a plot (or a lot) of land. If you own one lot of land, you own a lot of land, but not onelot of land, or alot of land. Just as you would not write “onelot,” you would not write “alot.” The proper structure is, instead “one lot” and “a lot.” Another way to think of it is this: You wouldn’t write “alittle,” so you also wouldn’t write “alot.”
I arrived at the Writing Show at 6:51, six minutes after the 6:45 start time. The lobby of the Firehouse Theater (the venue for the Writing Show) was empty, the 6 o’clock social hour in the lobby having already morphed into the presentation and moved into the auditorium. Someone from James River Writers quietly and warmly led me to what seemed to be the very last seat in the very first row. I didn’t get a program because they had already given away all 76 of them. I sat down gratefully, and settled in, optimistic that I would learn a few things I could apply to my own novel-in-progress. Despite my tardiness, my optimism was rewarded. Below, I share my lessons with you.
On Finding the Emotional Truth
As writers, part of our job is making sure our writing resonates with our readers. The most effective way to achieve this goal is to make sure our work elicits genuine emotions, and provides characters our readers can relate to. To keep a reader interested, we must make sure to hold their emotional attention–our readers must be emotionally invested in our characters. They have to cheer for them, cry with them, laugh with them. But how can we create characters and situations that foster this type of character-reader connection?
Ms. Johnson advised that writers get themselves out of the way and listen to their characters. After you have your basic story idea figured out, she recommended you write character bios that include the characters’ vulnerabilities, what they want, and what they are willing to do to get it. She also reminded us that “the best fiction comes from truth.”
Ms. Blankman said we need to ask ourselves: What one thing matters to the character most, and how can you threaten the safety of that one thing? She also advised to be careful to begin at the right part of the story. Make sure to reveal the character before he embarks on his emotional journey and change. What is he like before he starts to change? She cautions us not to start too late, but instead to allow our reader to meet the character before the story arc begins.
Ms. Moran, who spoke largely about nonfiction, reminded us that fiction rules also apply to nonfiction. She says her rule of thumb for plot is: It starts bad, gets worse, and then gets resolved.
On Achieving Emotional Variance
Our hostess, Robin Farmer, introduced this topic by explaining that one of the most common mistakes new novelists make is creating a protagonist who is too unhappy. Or too happy. Or too angry. Or too bitter. In short, new novelists sometimes create a character who is dominated by one character trait or mood, and is thus somewhat flat and static. Emotional variance, however, refers to the variety and spectrum of emotions people feel. In one day, even the most stable person likely experiences multiple emotions, ranging from concern to serenity, from fear to calm, from contentment to frustration.
Ms. Moran’s advise was simple: Your character needs to be likable before she is miserable.
Ms. Blankman said she often creates an emotional checklist for her characters. One technique she uses is color coding. She assigns a certain color to each emotion, and then goes through her draft, highlighting or changing font colors accordingly. “You want a rainbow,” she said, indicating that a variety of colors implies balanced and believable emotional variance in your character.
In addition to color coding her drafts, Ms. Blankman discussed the method of creating what she termed a “peaks and valleys graph” by chapter or section. She describes plotting points on a graph according to high points (positive emotions) and low points (negative emotions). This visual can help you get a sense for how often your character is happy and how often she is sad–as well as the intensity of the joy or sorrow. A higher point would indicate a higher intensity of elation. A lower point, a deeper pit of gloom. Ideally, your chart would show several peaks and valleys, indicating you have achieved emotional variance.
Ms. Johnson advises that the character’s emotion should change with each plot point in the outline of your story. She also recommends considering your own emotions throughout the day and “following the rhythm of life.”
On Knowing When You Are Done
While our ultimate goal is to always have that finished, polished piece, ready to send out for publication, or maybe just share with close friends and family, it can be very difficult to discern when a piece you have been working on is done–or at least as done as it’s going to get. The three authors on the panel explain how they decide when they are done below.
Ms. Johnson described the feeling of being done as reading her work, and experiencing the sensation that someone else wrote it. She describes how the hair on her arms will stand up and says it seems as though the finished piece is “singing” to her. She knows she is done when she has nothing left to say. She also cautions us not to let our egos get in the way. Do not think, “I have to get the story out right.” Instead, realize that you are merely a conduit for the story. Sit down. Listen. Write.
Ms. Blankman admits that she can often revise until she can no longer see her story clearly, and it becomes too familiar. She reads it so many times, she can no longer tell if it’s good or not. When she reaches this point, she either puts the piece away for a while, or sends it to a trusted critique partner.
She also advises that we need to do terrible things to our characters, and make them suffer.
Ms. Moran’s advice follows closely to the last tidbit from Ms. Blankman. To ascertain whether or not her work is finished, she asks herself the following questions:
Have I gone deep enough?
Does this hurt badly enough?
I let my character suffer, fail, take risks. Can I make it worse?
If she can answer yes to the first two and no to the last one, she is done. If not, she has more work to do.
On What to Avoid
It is one thing to make sure we are doing everything we should be doing, and quite another to make sure we aren’t doing everything we shouldn’t be doing. Here are some “don’t’s.”
Ms. Blankman warns us not to be too easy on our characters. She also recommends reading books we don’t like, figuring out why we don’t like them, and then not doing whatever that is.
Ms. Moran cautions us not to focus solely on an external or an internal conflict. The best writing incorporates both.
On Books We Can Learn From
You may have heard the adage, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to write.” Surely it is solid advice to say that one can become a much better writer through reading good authors. Below are some recommendations from the panel.
Ms. Johnson has two requirements for books she reads: 1) they must entertain her, and 2) they must teach her something. She recommends reading Kitchen Houseby Kathleen Grissom and Diane Whetstone’s Lazaretto.
Navigating the waters of publishing can be tricky. What are the steps? Who are the people? How do I do this? The unfortunate truth, and the reason why this process is so tricky, is: It’s different for everyone. Here is how our panelists have followed their pathways to publication.
Ms. Johnson recommends hiring an outside editor, one not affiliated with a publisher, because they have more time to work with you than an in-house editor might.
Ms. Blankman works with an in-house editor through Harper Collins, but says she has her manuscript pretty polished before her editor ever sees it. After she sends the work in, her editor responds with an editorial letter, which usually starts by listing all the piece’s virtues, and ends by explaining what needs to be improved or addressed. Ms. Blankman has never hired an outside editor, but she does share her work with trusted critique partners, and her agent is a former editor.
Ms. Moran advises that writers of young adult literature may not need to hire an outside editor. Because YA literature is so popular right now, a YA piece is likely to receive a lot of attention from in-house editors.Literary fiction, not so much–so if that’s what you write, you might want to consider finding your own outside editor. Lastly, Ms. Moran says you are wise to “invest in help.”
On Cutting Copy
Cutting copy is one of the most challenging parts of the writing process. How do you know what to cut and what to keep? What if you feel you must cut something you love? We all know the pain of trimming down our work.
Johnson laughed as she said that what she was about to advise us to do, “none of you are gonna wanna do.” She was right, but it seems good advice, nonetheless. As part of her revising process, Ms. Johnson re-types every single draft. She prints it; reads it, taking notes as she goes; and then retypes it. This is helpful in cutting copy she says, because “you’ll only want to retype the good stuff.” If you find yourself thinking, as she sometimes does, “I’d rather kill myself than retype this paragraph over again,” you might not need that paragraph.
Ms. Blankman reminds us to trust our readers. They don’t need the entire backstory. Let them fill in blanks while you drop clues for the first couple of chapters, or use flashback. She also advises not to use a prologue to tell backstory. The other authors concurred: prologues are often one of the first things an editor or publisher will cut.
Give flashback and backstory when you need it to move forward. In other words, write your story forward until yo must go backward in order to go forward again.
Ms. Moran’s very straightforward advice was that most writers will end up needing to cut the first 40 to 130 pages of their manuscript.
While our readers may not need to know every little detail of our characters’ lives, in order to tell an accurate, honest, and believable story, we do. Here is some advice on getting to know your characters.
Write a letter to and from your character, or hold an imaginary conversation with your character.
Write a scene where the main character isn’t the main character, a scene told from a different character’s point of view, as if he or she were actually the protagonist.
Consider all the mundane details of your character–from the kind of car she drives to the kinds of clothes in her closet. And read Robert Ray’s The Weekend Novelist.
Basically, “less” works with singular nouns and “fewer” works with plural nouns. For example, you might drink less milk than your friend, but you ate fewer cookies.
You drink less water, but fewer glasses of water. This is because “water” is singular, whereas “glasses” is plural.
You eat less soup, but fewer bowls of soup.
You purchase less perfume, but fewer bottles of perfume.
You packed less clothing, but fewer clothes.
If you understand when to use “much” as opposed to when to use “many,” then another way to think about it is this: If you would use “many,” use “fewer.” Think: I didn’t eat as many cookies as he did = I ate fewer cookies than he did.
If you would use “much,” use “less.” Think: I didn’t drink as much milk as he did = I drank less milk than he did.
In case you’ve ever underestimated the importance of proofreading, don’t.
I recently found myself in the center seat on a full flight that couldn’t take off because of a typo.
It went something like this:
Pilot’s fuzzy voice announces over the cockpit speakers, “Ladies and gentleman, we have a full flight today. There are no empty seats, and it appears we will need to delay our takeoff just a bit because we are running over the weight limit.”
General rumble of dismayed passengers worried about missing connections (I include myself in the group of worriers) rises and falls in the cabin.
And we wait some more.
About twenty-five minutes pass.
Pilot’s voice over the cockpit speakers crackles, “Ladies and gentleman, we are investigating what appears to be a typo. We recently got new handbooks, and we believe this latest version contains a typo. We are looking into it to make sure we are following procedure before takeoff.”
Exclamations of amusement and disbelief rise and fall in the cabin.
And we wait some more.
Ten or fifteen minutes pass.
Pilot’s voice over the cockpit speakers relates the welcomed news, “Ladies and gentleman, it appears the issue was indeed only a typo. We will be taking off shortly. Thank you for your patience.”
Sighs of relief rise and fall in the cabin.
But I am still a little concerned.
You see, my 50-minute layover was a tight one before the typo-induced delay, and by the time the typo was identified and the confusion cleared up, our flight was taking off an hour later than scheduled.
I’ll spare you the details of the three-hour flight, which was uneventful, and skip to what was left of the layover:
We are running through the airport with carry-ons clunking against our thighs and backs. We are panting on the tram. We are racing up to our gate as the woman manning it says, “You’re lucky you got here. They’re closing the door now,” and picks up a phone to tell the operator on the other end of the bridge that we are here and not to close the door yet. We are jostling our way down the aisle of already-settled passengers, eyeballing us as if we are the reason they have not yet taken flight.
We make our flight, but our checked bags aren’t as fortunate.
And our car keys are tucked safely away in them.
We land in Richmond, where the car we cannot unlock, let alone start and drive home, is waiting in the south parking garage. We call my mother-in-law to make the 25-minute drive from our home, where she has been taking care of our dogs, to the airport–with our extra set of car keys in her purse. We drive two separate cars home, and have an excellent excuse to relax for the evening: We cannot unpack luggage that did not arrive, nor can we begin to wash and dry and fold the clothes packed in said luggage.
We wake up the next morning to find our bags kindly delivered, waiting in the shade on our back deck–and the typo-induced ordeal has finally come to close. At least for us. I don’t know what became of the passengers whose connecting flights had already taken off when we finally landed at our connecting airport.
The moral of the story? The next time you consider sending an e-mail, publishing a blog post (goodness help my hypocritical soul if you’ve found a typo in this one!), or turning in a paper before you’ve proofread it (multiple times), consider the chaos one little mistake could cause on the other end (not to mention your own, personal humiliation).
I don’t consider myself a particularly irritable person, but I do have a few pet peeves. I can’t stand when the covers on my bed get rumpled and disheveled, rendering me tangled and immobilized. It drives me bonkers when those high-tech toilets with the automatic-flush feature flush at the most inconvenient and inappropriate times (which they always do). And I find it extremely inconsiderate when the driver in front of me slows down and turns without ever having used his blinker. But perhaps one of my greatest pet peeves is the widespread mispronunciation of the phrase “couldn’t care less.”
The phrase is meant to express an utter indifference.
“I hate to disappoint, but I am not going to make it to dinner tonight, my dear,” he said apologetically.
“Quite frankly, Daniel, I couldn’t care less,” she sniffed.
Providing the “she” in this example really does not at all care whether or not she sees Daniel at dinner tonight, this is the proper use of “couldn’t care less.” She cares so incredibly little about his attendance to the meal, that she actually could not care any less.
The common mistake people often make is to proclaim they “could care less,” when really, what they mean to express is that they don’t care at all.
“I hate to disappoint, but I am not going to make it to dinner tonight, my dear,” he said apologetically.
“Quite frankly, Daniel, I could care less,” she sniffed.
She could care less? She could? Quite literally then, she does care–at least a little–because she could care at least a little bit less.
Regarding some of my own pet peeves, then:
The blankets on the bed are in a disarray–twisted and tangled and balled up.
Oh, I could care less. I could care a lot less. In fact, we are going to have to fix that before we can go to sleep.
I walk into the bathroom stall and am greeted by the whooshing and whirring of a flushing toilet. I haven’t even locked the door yet, for crying out loud.
Again, I could care less. A lot less. How many gallons of water did we just waste? And how many more times is that thing going to flush before I’m through?
There are many things, though, that I really couldn’t care less about. What’s for dinner tonight? I couldn’t care less, just so long as I get to eat dinner. Should we make a reservation for 6:15 or 6:30? Couldn’t care less. What’s fifteen minutes? You get the idea.
The next time someone tells you she could care less about something, the proper response might be, “Really? How much less?”
I first met author, editor, and blogger Kris Spisak at the 2015 James River WritersAnnual Conference in downtown Richmond, Virginia, when I attended her Friday Master Class, “Nuts and Bolts: Editing your Work like a Pro.” She was an energetic, dynamic, and knowledgeable presenter, and I found the information she conveyed so helpful that the following day, instead of eating alone, I overcame the introverted tendency so stereotypical of writers and attended her Lunch and Learn, “Ask an Editor,” an informal, conversational lunch meeting during which writers could ask Ms. Spisak questions about the writing, revising, and publishing process (or sundry other topics).
I am delighted to present below my interview with Richmond-based author, editor, and blogger, Kris Spisak.
Mind the Dog: I’d like to begin by asking you a few questions pertaining to your two books. What was the inspiration for each one? Where did you get your ideas?
Kris Spisak: As an independent professional editor, I found myself addressing the same grammar flaws and incorrect word usage issues again and again, and because of this, I started my weekly writing tips blog in 2012. It started as a collection of notes for my clients and writing peers, and then it began to grow. Everyone writes, whether you consider yourself a “writer” or not, and I suppose that’s why my blog—which transformed into Alright? Not All Right—has found a surprisingly wide audience. Grammar jargon is intimidating. My goal has always been to simplify the answers and to interject some humor into the conversation.
My novel started as a work of literary fiction with a male protagonist battling mental health issues, their stigmas, and their effects on his life. It began as an idea over a decade ago that I just didn’t know what to do with. Of course, through the writing and rewriting process, my literary fiction turned into a literary thriller, and my protagonist declared she was female. Who knew? Certainly not me! The author might have the initial ideas, but sometimes the characters take control and decide to tell a different story. (The full manuscript of this book, tentatively titled We’re All Mad Here, is presently out with a number of literary agents, so fingers crossed!)
MTD: How long did each one take you to write?
KS: My writing process has been interrupted by births of children and births of businesses, but the short answer is that I wrote Alright? Not All Right from 2012 to 2015 and We’re All Mad Here from 2009 to 2015—though the “finished” date is rather loose on the latter since it hasn’t found a publishing home yet.
MTD: How many edits and/or drafts did each work go through before it was finished?
KS: It’s hard to definitively say a number of drafts, because I’m continually tweaking: changing a word here or there, cutting lines or adding depth to a moment, and shifting small details for maximum impact. I cannot count how many times I’ve gone through my manuscripts. But wasn’t it Da Vinci who said “Art is never finished, only abandoned”? I connect with that sentiment deeply. (Maybe it’s the editor in me.)
MTD: You’re an editor. I imagine letting others critique your work could be humbling and enlightening. Did your own errors surprise you? What did you learn from the process?
KS: I definitely have to swallow my pride a bit when other people read my early manuscripts, but the truth is, as writers, sometimes we know our stories so well in our heads that we can’t see what has actually translated onto the page. No matter who you are, having other eyes on your writing can make it better.
I might turn red-faced when my critique partner points out that I slipped up on one of my own grammatical pet-peeves, but it happens. That’s why there are early drafts. Story has to come first for me. Clean-up comes later.
MTD: Would you consider yourself a planner or a panster (or a planster!), and why?
KS: I am a planner, but I allow some liberties with that. In fiction, I outline plot-points, not full chapters. How my characters get from point A to point B isn’t always clear to me, but the fact that they will get from A to B usually is.
MTD: This is really interesting, as I would have guessed pantster based on the fact that you didn’t realize the protagonist in your novel was female. Could you say more about that?
KS: My liberties come with my characters. When different people are thrown into the exact same situation, they are going to react differently. While I might plan for ten major points across the arc of a story, my protagonist is the driving force of the plot. Sometimes, as I’m writing, my characters surprise me, rebelling against my plot structure or moving in the same direction I had planned but in a completely unpredictable manner. And where my characters lead, I have to follow. When I force a character to do something or be something against his or her will, the total story falls flat. If my very long process with We’re All Mad Herehas taught me nothing else, it has taught me that.
MTD: I’d like to switch gears a little bit here and ask a few questions regarding Alright? Not All Right!, your e-mail newsletter, and your blog. What are your top-three grammar/mechanic pet peeves?
MTD: Your quarterly email newsletter includes a plethora of tips each time it goes out. How do you come up with ideas for tips to include in your regular newsletter—errors in works you edit?
KS: Errors in client work, bad writing on social media, confusing store signage, caught typos of my own—as anyone who pays attention knows, there are a lot of mistakes out there.
And because my blog has been steadily gaining a wider audience, I’ve started getting a lot of reader suggestions, too.
MTD: How can readers of this post make suggestions regarding writing errors they’d like to see addressed on your blog and/or in your newsletter?
KS: Dropping me a line via my website contact form would be fabulous. Thanks for asking!
MTD: I am always amazed at the amount of errors you address and all the information you know. How do you know all this?!
KS: Research is one of my favorite parts of the writing process, and I guess that has rubbed off a bit into my work as an editor. Sometimes I remember things I was taught, but I always have to double-check myself before I publish a post. There’s usually a rabbit hole of research behind each brief tip, and I’ve taught myself a lot of subtleties along the way.
MTD: I’d like to wrap up with some more general questions. What is your take on the Oxford comma?
KS: I’m an Oxford comma groupie.
MTD: What have been some of your career highs and lows, as both a writer and an editor?
KS: As an editor, some of my favorite moments have been hearing client success stories—agents acquired and Amazon bestseller lists achieved. As a writer, I’ve had a blast with my blog and writing tip book, but I’m personally hoping the best is yet to come with my fiction.
The lows can hit a writer hard through the different stages of this process—questioning whether you can do justice to the story you want to tell, whether an agent or publisher will ever want it, wondering how readers will respond, etc. We just have to have faith, keep writing, keep editing, and remember that this is a business of endurance as much as it is passion.
MTD: What do you love about writing? About editing?
KS: Both in my writing and my editing, my favorite place to work is where the right brain and left brain meet, where the craft and beauty of language meet the finite rules of grammar, where the creative process is entwined with research so little known you get to touch documents no one has given a second thought to for a hundred years.
MTD: What is your favorite work of literature and why?
KS: Anna Karenina for its complexities and its powerful inquiries into the nature of humanity; The Alchemist for its simplicity and motivational spirit.
MTD: Who is your favorite writer and why?
KS: You’d think this would be an easy question, but it really isn’t. Dorothy Parker, Donna Tartt, Ann Patchett, Katherine Mansfield, Margaret Mitchell… oh, and I do love Shakespeare.
My favorite writers are full of more than stories. They’re full of language that can drip with beauty and/or wit and can still hit you to the core. I know my list is terribly incomplete. I need more time with this one!
Mind the Dog Writing Blog would like to express gratitude to Ms. Spisak for the time she took to answer the questions in such detail.
Tim Ferriss's 4-Hour Workweek and Lifestyle Design Blog. Tim is an author of 5 #1 NYT/WSJ bestsellers, investor (FB, Uber, Twitter, 50+ more), and host of The Tim Ferriss Show podcast (400M+ downloads)
Running doesn't exist in a vacuum. It exists in the whole fabric of life as one square of the quilt, sewn in among other squares--family and career and travel and friends and and and... It gets rearranged on our list of priorities according to time of life. This is about how running fits into my life, right now.