“Outstanding”? (Or, The Delicate Act of Writing a Sequel)

It’s true.  For years, it’s been my dream to be a full-time creative writer, earning a living solely through the art of storytelling.  I guess every writer wishes for this.  But for most of us, we have day jobs that help us to pay our bills, forcing us to pursue our true literary passions in the early-morning hours, late at night, or on weekends–or simply whenever a moment arises where we can spare an hour or two and just write.

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My day job is as a technical writer for a computer software company.  The material I produce in this capacity is, admittedly, drier than day-old toast, but it’s a comfortable environment, and the act of writing technical documents doesn’t drain any of my creativity, leaving me fresh and ready to explore the imaginary byways of my mind after hours.

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I got started in the technical writing field just as the specter of Y2K hung over the IT world like a giant, ominous shadow.  I was fresh out of college, unsure and uncertain what to expect, when I was hired by a large company in my hometown of Rochester, NY, into a department called Documentation & Publications, or Doc & Pubs for short–which consisted of approximately fifteen technical writers and eight publishers.  I was one of the publishers.  I hoped to graduate into the role of technical writer eventually, and I did, but for a different company and in a different state.

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Being a part of the publisher group was good, solid experience.  The publishers, as the department manager told us more than once, represented “the last line of defense.”  Our chief responsibilities were to fact-check and proofread the material sent to us by the technical writers, ensuring grammatical correctness and subject accuracy.

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One member of the publishing team stood out to me.  John was two years my senior, with a flattop haircut, a mustache, and thick, retro 1970s-style Elvis sideburns.  And whenever anyone asked him how he was, or how his day was going, he would invariably say, “Outstanding!”  (The exclamation point was always audible.)  It didn’t matter if it was Monday, if the morning commute had been marred with blizzard-like conditions or traffic jams, or if he’d just had a run-in with one of the more particular or dour technical writers.  He was always “outstanding.”

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I asked him once about that.  “You’re not really ‘outstanding’ all the time, are you?” I wanted to know.

“Actually I am,” he said.  “It’s a choice I make.  I don’t want to be just ‘okay’ or ‘not bad’ or ‘fine.’  I want to be outstanding.  And so, I am.”

He made it sound so simple.

The documents came in fast and furious, every day.  A few were new, created from scratch as it were, detailing some new system or product.  But most of the documents we had to proofread were preexisting ones–voluminous, intimidating manuals in which the writers would add a section here or there, or, in many cases, simply add a sentence or a paragraph to the text.  Many of the changes to systems they documented were, in fact, minor tweaks, building upon the vast amount of material that had already been in place.

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“The trick,” one of the writers explained to me once, “is to be able to add to what we already have without being redundant.”

Little did I recognize at the time the parallels that existed between tweaking company manuals and the art of writing a sequel . . .

************

When I published The Eye-Dancers, I did not intend to follow it up with a sequel. It had been a rewarding project, and writing about four protagonists all inspired by friends I knew growing up was fun.  But I had no ongoing story line in mind.  I figured I would move on to something else, perhaps something vastly different.

That’s when an image struck me.  It came, as these things so often do, out of the ether, unasked for, unplanned.  I saw Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Ryan Swinton, and Marc Kuslanski standing at the base of a gigantic stone building, looking up at a sky the color of ash.  And then the sky changed.  The clouds dispersed, as if by magic, replaced by a pair of unblinking blue eyes that glared down at the boys with unmistakable ill-will.

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I resisted at first.  Did I really want to undertake a sequel?  But the image remained, beckoning, a window to a new story demanding to be told.  Before long, a fully fleshed adventure came into view, and the conviction to write it grew stronger by the day.

And so I began–attempting to write my first-ever sequel.  I immediately encountered issues I’d never considered or dealt with before.  How much information from the first book needed to be touched upon or referenced in the second?  Granted, a sequel should be able to stand alone, on its own merit.  But at the same time, to ignore pertinent bits of information from the first book seemed like a blatant omission.  The question was–how much was too much?  Or too little?  I remembered the discussion I’d had with that technical writer a decade and a half earlier–about building on a preexisting foundation without being redundant.  Somewhere in all this, there had to be a happy medium.

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Months elapsed, and the story progressed.  Then life would get in the way, inspiration would dwindle, and the pace would slow.  Every now and then, Mitchell or Joe, Ryan or Marc, or even Monica Tisdale, the “ghost girl,” would trip me up, forcing me to look at something in a way I hadn’t planned.  And sometimes the plot would take a sudden turn, away from the paved road I had mapped out, forging instead over unpredictable marshy swampland, through thick, canopied forests, or barbed-wired ravines.  Through it all, though, I have felt a burning drive to carry the story to its conclusion, to travel with the characters as they battle and discover and scratch and stumble their way on the path of self-growth and accomplishment.  It’s been a long, sometimes turbulent, but always interesting ride.

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The current status of the project remains–in progress, but with an eye toward the finish line.  Twenty-one chapters have been written, complete with numerous, laborious revisions.  Nine chapters are left to write.

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The goal is to have the sequel ready right around the time the ball is dropped in Times Square on that cold, dark winter night.  The characters, as they always do, are leading the way, and they are urging me on, eager to finish the race.  But it won’t be easy.  They are being tested more than ever this time around.

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As I’ve examined and picked through what I have so far, I’ve been critical, doubtful, unsure.  Is the story any good?  Will readers of The Eye-Dancers enjoy this continuation?  Or will it flop, crashing and burning like a doomed meteor breaking through the earth’s atmosphere, reduced to smoking fragments of dust and debris?

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I wish I knew.  Time will tell.  But as I round the bend and endeavor to complete the journey, overcoming the delays and potholes and moments when the sheer scope of the project and story line makes me want to pull out my hair at its roots, I will try, as best I can, to harness my inner John.

How’s the sequel going?

“Outstanding!”

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Thanks so much for reading!

Mike

The Most Dangerous Game–Of Gourds, Objects of Prepositions, and Serial Commas

When I was in the eighth grade, I read “The Most Dangerous Game,” the classic 1924 short story written by Richard Connell. My English teacher that year, Miss Goggin, a fun woman in her fifties who continually looked for ways to approach topics in an unconventional manner, decided that every student would read the story, and every student would then give a brief oral report on it.

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“Now, I’m hoping this will inspire each of you to look at the story in unique and different ways,” she said on the cold, gray November morning she issued the assignment. “The last thing any of us wants is to hear the same report, verbatim, over and over.”

Good intentions, perhaps, but on this occasion, Miss Goggin’s instincts backfired.  Of the twenty-five or so oral reports on “The Most Dangerous Game,” nearly all were, if not identical, then close to it.  Even Miss Goggin admitted defeat halfway through.  “This wasn’t one of my superlative ideas,” she said, and then:  “Next!  Kimberly, regale us with your synopsis of the story . . .”  No doubt, Kimberly groaned inwardly as she rose from her chair to give the same report we had already heard a dozen times over.

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Thinking about all this now, it strikes me that another very dangerous game, for many people, revolves around English grammar.  Even the mention of the term “grammar” might give some the shivers.  During my eighth-grade English class, it seemed Miss Goggin made it her personal mission to instill in us an appreciation for grammar.  She didn’t want us avoiding it, or letting “the editor handle it.”  One day, she brought in a handful of gourds, using them as props to help diagram sentences.  I can’t remember the specifics of that lesson very well, but I’ll always remember the gourds.  They stayed in the classroom for weeks, and became an ongoing, running joke between Miss Goggin and our class.

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One of her pet peeves was the misuse of objects of prepositions, especially when someone made the mistake deliberately in an attempt to speak or write in a “correct” or formal manner.  She hammered this home so many times, I doubt I’ve used a subject, rather than an object, of a preposition since!  “Don’t ever say, ‘Between you and I,’ she instructed on multiple occasions, often punctuating the proclamation with a firm shake of the head or even a shrill sound that wasn’t quite a scream, but awfully close.  “Or, ‘for you and I.’  Prepositions take objects, not subjects!  Take away the ‘you.’  Would you say, ‘For I‘?”  And then she would pause for dramatic effect.  Point taken.

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I remember her lessons fondly.  Her “Most Dangerous Game” fiasco notwithstanding, Miss Goggin’s ideas hit much more often than they missed.  Her class was always lively and interesting, and I discovered, even then, that I was the odd sort who enjoyed grammar.  Grammar is a building block, a collection of tools–a chisel here, a hammer there, perhaps a paintbrush and a socket wrench over there, a few inches to the left.  Used properly, the tools can polish and hone prose, cleaning it up and pruning it to maximum effect.

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But it is a “dangerous game,” indeed.  On Fridays, I tutor writing at a local college.  And when students come to me with their first drafts of essays and term papers, they invariably say, “Can you check it for grammar?  I don’t do grammar!”  I gladly go over the nuts and bolts with them, and hopefully the effort is worthwhile and helpful.  But I tend to believe most students aren’t absorbing the grammar lessons all that much.

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“See, here, it looks like your professor is using the style that calls for serial commas,” I said to one student just last month.

“Serial commas?” she said.  “Is that, like, serial killers or something?”

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************

There is no doubt about it.  Grammar is, for many, the dentist drill of the writing trade, the necessary evil that, if not mastered, at least needs to be understood and properly applied.  It isn’t as exciting as literary symbolism, alliteration, powerful imagery, or multi-layered characters who grab the reader’s attention and never let go.  And, it may be argued, it isn’t as important, either.  Certainly a raw talent can be honed; breathtaking prose that inspires and awes, yet is littered with technical errors, can be smoothed over and perfected–and surely will garner more praise and attention than a grammatically flawless but uninspired and wooden piece.

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Good grammar does not guarantee a good writer.  But it goes a long way toward making a good writer better.  Additionally, when is it okay to break the rules, as it were, and use sentence fragments, split infinitives, end sentences with prepositions, and so on?  The answer is, in my eyes, often!  Even so, knowing the rules helps us to see when it’s appropriate and advantageous to break them.

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It would be foolish to believe that many people will ever truly enjoy English grammar.  The endless rules, exceptions to rules, and various styles and usages are enough to make anyone’s head spin.  I suppose it helps when you can look back at an old teacher from your childhood who some way, somehow, made grammar fun.

So, thanks, Miss Goggin!

You made “the dangerous game” of grammar a gourd-filled and lifelong adventure.

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Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

When It’s Okay to Break the Rules

Do you like grammar?  Or do you approach the subject with a frown, a sideways glance, and maybe even a loud, expletive-laced groan?

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I admit, I’m one of those odd ducks who genuinely enjoys English grammar.  My fascination with dangling participles, comma splices, and restrictive versus nonrestrictive clauses began in the eighth grade.  My English teacher that year was a stickler for details, and did not tolerate clumsy grammar.

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I can still remember the way she used to pound it in our heads, day after day, not to use a subject as an object in a prepositional phrase.  This was her number-one grammatical pet peeve.  “It’s not correct to say ‘for you and I,'” she would shout.  “Take out the ‘you.’  Would you then say, ‘for I’?”  Many of her students would bury their head in their hands, a glazed, get-me-out-of-this-class look in their eyes.  But I enjoyed these lessons.

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So it is certainly my hope that The Eye-Dancers is free of grammatical errors.  Then again, when going strictly by the letter of the traditional law, The Eye-Dancers is littered with grammar issues.  And so is just about every book published today.

A case in point:

“As soon as he [Mitchell Brant] opened the door, a bell jangled, announcing his presence. Faces turned to look at him. Grizzled old faces, coated with stubble. Fresh, young faces, questioning, sizing him up. Middle-aged faces, embedded with deep smile lines and wrinkles around the eyes. The attention made him uncomfortable, and he glanced behind him, through the window. He saw the girl walking away.

Whew.”

This excerpt is from chapter eight of The Eye-Dancers.  And–technically speaking, we have issues here.  Notice the number of sentence fragments.  Three alone in the first paragraph.  And in the second paragraph, another one.  Not to mention it represents a one-word paragraph.  A by-the-book grammarian might tell me to get rid of the fragments.  Turn them into grammatically complete sentences.  And, for heaven’s sake, don’t ever write a one-word paragraph!

My response?  True.  I have broken a few of the rules here–but deliberately so.  Sentence fragments, when used judiciously and appropriately, can add punch to a narrative.  They are short, staccato nuggets that help to move a story along.  It’s important not to go overboard, of course, and if they appear in every paragraph, they become tiresome and repetitious.  But when used in the right places, they can add rhythm and flow to your writing.

As for a one-word, or one-line paragraph–I believe, when used in the right places, this can add emphasis to the narrative.  The “whew” above is a good example.  If it were tacked on at the end of the first paragraph, it would be an afterthought.  Setting it apart, as a one-word paragraph, adds to the feel of it.  This way, you can almost see Mitchell breathing a sigh of relief.  “Whew.”  It gives it extra weight.

Another hard-line rule is never to end a sentence with a preposition.  But we do it all the time–in our speech and our writing.  If we tried to adhere to this rule, our writing would sound overly formal and stuffy.  Winston Churchill, one of the greatest orators of the twentieth century, once responded to a critic who pointed out that he’d ended some of his sentences with prepositions by saying, “Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.”

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Point taken.

This of course does not apply to egregious grammatical errors.  Imagine trying to read a sentence like this:  “She, went to, the store to buy a, loaf, of bread.”  It’s understandable, but the misuse of commas makes this an awkward, difficult reading experience.  Errors like this can ruin a piece regardless of how effective the content might be.

In dialogue, of course, the standards are different–less stringent than in narrative text.  If your character speaks in slang, and altogether butchers proper English grammar, more power to her!  Even English professors commit all manner of grammatical faux pas when they speak.

For example, I picture an English prof, on a Friday night, after a hard day of teaching the rules of proper usage and airtight grammar, hitting the town with her friends.  It’s time to relax, have fun, throw caution to the wind.  If I were writing her as a character in a story, I might have her speak in occasional double negatives, say “that” when she should say “which,” and introduce herself and her friends as, “Me and. . . .”  I might even have her wear her “split infinitives” T-shirt, for good measure!

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But then, the following day, she would have a stack of papers to grade, and she would once again put on her English professor’s cap.  Because she would realize . . .

In order to know when it’s okay to break the rules of English grammar, you first need to understand and acknowledge the rules you’re breaking.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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