Just a quick one: For folks who are having trouble with writer’s block (either in their professional or creative work), I’ve put together this little week-long clinic. Totally free, no strings attached. My gift to you. Check it out:
People freak out about commas. Please don’t. Yes, commas are hella confusing (the Chicago Manual of Style dedicates 59 distinct sub-sections to them, and even then there is ambiguity and opinion and wiggle room leftover), but knowing these four little things will almost entirely solve your comma problems.
1. The “Oxford”/”serial” Comma
This is technically the “list” comma: When you give a list, you put commas between individual items. E.g.,:
Go to the store and get eggs, pineapple, a ’57 Chevy, and enlightenment.
N.B. that the last comma (which I’ve put in red) is disputed; that lil fella is an “Oxford comma”. Some folks say it’s unnecessary (including, at least at one time, the AP Style Guide), preferring:
Go to the store and get eggs, pineapple, a ’57 Chevy and enlightenment.
But this can lead to hilarious ambiguity, such as this oft-quoted (and probably apocryphal) book dedication sorely in need of an Oxford comma:
This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God
—or this actual and verified sentence published in the Times of London a few years back:
FYI, serial commas apply to lists of adjectives, too:
You mean that fat, red, flabby car? It’s mine. Why?
2. The “if, then” Comma
“If . . ., then . . .” statements need commas:
If you don’t cut it the fuck out, then I’m going to freak the fuck out.
Where this one tricks people is that we often omit the then in an “if, then” statement—nonetheless, we still need the comma:
If you don’t cut it the fuck out, I’m going to freak the fuck out.
3. “That/which” commas
Rule of Thumb: “that” is almost never preceded by a comma, while a standalone “which” is almost always preceded by a comma:
You know that dog I hired? Turns out he has no idea how to use Excel, which is super annoying.
(So what is a non-standalone “which”? “Which” used in a phrase like “that which” or “in which”—in those cases, you don’t stick a comma before the “which,” because that would muck up the phrase.)
4. Commas by Ear
There are a ton of other commas (“parenthetical commas,” “conjunction commas,” “direct address commas,” etc., etc., ad infinitum, ad nauseam)—fortunately, there’s an easy way to figure out where to put them without learning a ton of new rules. Here’s the trick:
Commas indicate places where you take a brief pause when saying something.
So, there’s a really easy way to get your commas right most of the time:
Read it aloud; if there’s a place where you naturally take a half-pause or shift volume, then stick a comma there. If you don’t pause, then strike the comma—unless it’s one of the three situations listed above.
For example, say:
Dave <pause> why did you say that?
That pause is the direct address comma:
Dave, why did you say that?
Did you know that Nate <pause> the terrible drunk in my carpool <pause> is marrying my sister?
That’s the parenthetical comma:
Did you know that Nate, the terrible drunk in my carpool, is marrying my sister?
This fourth rule is the golden rule, since most of the first three types of commas are also marked in speech by a pause or volume/tone shift—but sometimes those commas can be subtle to the ear, which is why it’s worth knowing the first three rules. Rule #4 will keep you covered 90% of the time, while Rules #1–3 will help you catch the tricky 10%
We’re done here. Go forth, my children, and sin no more.
(Want more details? Start with the Purdue Owl on Commas, and then move on to the Chicago Manual of Style, if need be.)
Just a quick note: I’m on the faculty of the Michigan Writing Workshop this year, doing fantasy and science fiction critiques (I still have a few open slots, they tell me). Lots of interesting speakers this year (I’m especially hoping to drop in on D.E. Johnson’s thriller/mystery/crime writing sessions; I dug his book The Detroit Electric Scheme).
Good Buddy AMEM writes:
You ever write a piece on productivity?
To which I reply:
I’ve written scads of advice things to folks who’ve emailed me expressing interest in freelance editing/copywriting, but nothing sort of generically about productivity in the “GTD” sense.
Anyway, when it comes to that, two pieces of advice jump to mind. The first is something a rabbi said during High Holidays services once, which amounted to “God doesn’t really give a shit about something you did one time; it’s when you repeat things over and over again that God takes notice.” The rabbi was talking about sin, basically advising against beating yourself up over a single fuck-up. Instead, make good and move on to Do Good Things (which may or may not square you with any Magickal Sky Fairy, but is certainly a helluva lot more socially productive).
But this position—that the thing you do one time isn’t what you are—goes for everything, good and bad: You aren’t a thief just because you stole something one time, and you aren’t a writer just because you wrote and sold one good thing. The last story/book/article/brochure does almost exactly jack-shit to help you write and sell the next one. You are a writer because you write every day. So, decide on the thing you want to be, and be that thing for at least a little while every day.
This sounds sorta stupid—or, at best, equal parts stupid and profound, like the Wise Men of Chelm—but still, every story I’ve sold in the last, I dunno, eight-ish years has been mostly written 25 minutes at a time weekday mornings while children slept.
The other piece of advice is straight from Ramit Sethi, who is sort of a huckster and sort of dead-on about most of what he says (albeit in a huckstery life-coach-ish way). Anyway, one one his big pieces of advice (at least a few years ago, when I was more actively following him) was to stop saying “I don’t have time for X.” All of us are busy and all of us blow precious minutes and hours dicking around on Facebook and leafing through shitty magazines and watching crap we don’t care about on YouTube and whatever. We have time for it. You can get up 25 minutes early every morning and write stories and novels 25 minutes at a time. You can get in shape—great shape, really—25 minutes at a time. You can learn about retirement savings or knitting or how to eat all vegan 25 minutes at a time. We use time as an excuse, because we don’t really—in our hearts—give a shit about the things we say we want. Just like TLC warns, we are scrubs “always talking about what we want / then we sit on our broke ass”
The real problem isn’t the time, it’s the prioritization. So, just the honest and start saying “I’m not prioritizing that.”
- “Lose some weight? Sorry, I’m not really prioritizing going to the gym right now.”
- “Hate my job? I’m not prioritizing finding a new one.”
- “Feeling perpetually pyscho-emotionally fucked up? Yeah, well, I just can’t prioritize finding a shrink and going to sessions.”
(These are all drawn from my life, incidentally.)
Changing your language like this forces us to really look at what we’re doing, ’cause when your kid says “Can we go play at the park?” or “Can you read me this book?” or “Can we watch this show?” and instead of saying “I’d love to sweetie, but I don’t have time” you say “I’d love to, sweetie, but I’m not prioritizing that right now”—well, you feel like a royal douchebag, and you do the important thing instead of the thing you thought was important.
So, that’s the advice:
- Be the thing you want to be for at least a little while everyday.
- Don’t talk about “time,” talk about Priorities.
I’m interested in artistic formulea of all stripes, so my ears perked up when I stumbled across this blog post exploring why it is that every pop song I hear as of late seems to feel the same, even when they sound totally different. The key: A little earwormy melodic alternation embedded into the hook. Here’s the article’s kick-out—although the whole thing (which is rife with video examples) is well worth your time:
[T]he Millennial Whoop evokes a kind of primordial sense that everything will be alright. You know these notes. You’ve heard this before. There’s nothing out of the ordinary or scary here. You don’t need to learn the words or know a particular language or think deeply about meaning. You’re safe. In the age of climate change and economic injustice and racial violence, you can take a few moments to forget everything and shout with exuberance at the top of your lungs. Just dance and feel how awesome it is to be alive right now. Wa-oh-wa-oh.
Having read this, I wondered how persuasive such a simply piece of patterning might be. So, in five minutes I sketched out this little tune and, whaddya know, it sounds like the outro of basically anything I’ve stumbled across while tuning across the dial during the last several long summer car trips:
For the curious, there’s literally nothing going on in this song: The left hand is just a straight C Major chord alternating with whatever you call that lazy F Major where, instead of actually moving your hand up, you just skooch your thumb and index fingers up one white key each, so that you pick up F Major’s F and B while keeping C anchored as the bottom note (maybe that’s an “inversion” of F Major?) The right hand, as per the “Millennial Whoop” formula, is alternating between the G and E two octaves up—i.e., the V and III in a progression where C is the root (i.e., I). The lyrics (which, depending on your speakers, might be hard to hear without headphones; I’m shit at mastering) are just whatever popped into my head, and the whole thing was recorded using my cellphone. The only “studio magic” (done in Garageband, and largely without any digital pixie dust) is “doubling the vocals” (see below—which is an excerpt form my book Junkyard Jam Band )—especially important in this instance because 1) I can’t sing for shit (which double-tracking tends to obscure) and 2) the mic on my cellphone didn’t pick up my voice particularly clearly, on account it was sitting on top of my keyboard’s speaker. Even if it had caught my singing, I likely would have doubled the vocals anyway (which are actually quadrupled by the end—listen with headphones, and you’ll hear two extra voices, slathered in “chorus” effect, that come in on the second round of Oh-ee-oh-ee-oh-ohs), since that sorta lush studio overkill is baked into this running-’til-the-break-of-dawn! summer-hit genre.
Artists: Even if you are lukewarm on Weezer, this interview with Rivers Cuomo (the band’s frontman) is so worth your time. I’ve got more than a little experience with collaboration, creativity under duress, constrained writing techniques, and Oulipo-like methods, and yet I’ve never come across a process like this, which is at once ornately technical (spreadsheets, demo files, something akin to A/B testing) and is so meticulous in the interest of harnessing randomness and stripping context and formal planning out of the creative process.
Weezerians: To those who dig Weezer already, know this: The stories in their songs are not stories they wrote, but stories you wrote in response to the fragments they gathered and the formulae they use to collect and organize those fragments.
Back at the beginning of March this list of Chuck Jones’s Rules for Coyote-Road Runner cartoons made the rounds:
(The pic, taken by filmmaker Amos Posner, shows a display in the Museum of the Moving Image’s “What’s Up, Doc? The Animation Art of Chuck Jones” exhibit. It’s identical to the Coyote-Road Runner Rules Jones listed in his 1999 memoir Chuck Amuck: The Life and Times of an Animated Cartoonist)
There’s some question as to the consistency with which The Rules are followed, as well as their pinned-to-the-wall workaday legitimacy, but as I work through a set of hard revisions on an almost-just-about-right SF novella, I’ve been thinking about these rules–not because I’m employing any of them in my edit (I’m not), but because they embody a different way of looking at constraints[*], and I’m very fond of drafting with a fuck-all attitude and revising with a sharp blade and very narrow constraints. By hewing to constraints we drive our work towards the Graceful Universality of fairytales, Willie Nelson songs, Basho haikus, Jones’ Coyote-Road Runner shorts, and the like. Besides, even if you miss the “graceful universality” bullseye, it’s effort well-spent, since the entire target constitutes “stuff someone will pay money for” (i.e., “work that meaningfully touches people”).
Jones’ Rules have been floating around the Internet for more than 15 years, during which time the list has swelled to as many as 11 items listed (in fact, Wikipedia editors only culled back to nine following Posner’s tweeted picture, even though Jones’ canonical nine-item Rules have been in print since 1999). Interestingly, the earliest instance of the Rules swelling beyond the Canonical Nine traces back to its *first* online incarnation back in 1999, which includes this 10th Rule:
(Rule 10.) The audience’s sympathy must remain with the Coyote.
This isn’t in Chuck’s Nine Rules because it’s something he explains a few pages earlier in his memoir, while setting up the discussion of the Coyote-Road Runner Rules. he returns to the idea in his analysis at the end of the book. It’s tacked on as a 10th Rule in that ancient webpage, but it’s really the 0th Rule, the fundamental Truth: The audience’s sympathy must remain with the Coyote, and to a greater or lesser degree the Rules guide the forward energy of each story toward this goal. The Coyote is humiliated not so much by an active antagonist (that damnable Road Runner) as by his environment, by the core physics of the universe, by shoddy consumer goods, and by his own mania.
You know, like the rest of us.
All of which is a nice reminder for me, that any part of the craft–all of the rules of thumb and editorial tricks and writing tactics and daily grinding–exist to serve the 0th Rule of the Coyote and Road Runner: You need to cultivate the audience’s sympathy for the protagonist. “Sympathetic” doesn’t mean “likable.” Likability, in my humble, is bullshit: We don’t “like” Richard III, on balance, or Hannibal Lecter, or Walter White, or Lady MacBeth, or Medea–but these are among the most compelling protagonists in Western narrative.
Similarly, “sympathy” isn’t “pity”; pity is a form of contempt. We feel superior to those we pity. But I don’t think most audience members ever feel superior to even the very disagreeable protagonists I’ve listed above, flawed and awful as they are. Why? I imagine it’s because, like Coyote, they may be failures, but they certainly aren’t quitters. We can respect that, and sympathy rests on a measure of (often grudging) respect.
Now there’s most certainly another 3k words I can put to this–especially as it applies to the modern argumentative essay and social media–but let’s stop here, with the nuts-and-bolts Write Better advice:
- Our job is to cultivate sympathy–not to be liked or pitied.
- We write better when we hew to constraints that guide our readers toward “feeling with” our characters (even the Bad Guys).
- There are many ways of formulating constraints; it doesn’t matter how they constrain you, so long as they do in fact constrain, that you at some point in your process feel hemmed in and annoyed by the Rules that you’ve set for yourself.
Or, in other words, accept the Fundamental Truth that Chuck Jones never deemed worth saying–that most artists come to see as so self-evident that it doesn’t bear mentioning:
You cannot catch or eat the Road Runner. But you always must chase.
I love this piece for two reasons: It is perfectly structured, and it’s compassionate.
Structurally, we’ve got a clean three-part structure (which, established, I believe in with a passion that is sort of embarrassingly open and sincere) that conforms to my workhorse Setup-Tangle-Resolution formula. Although it doesn’t strictly hew to my favored 45/45/10 distribution (in terms of time devoted to each of these three sections), I do note that the gag itself Resolves at the final 10% mark, with the line “It was like a date, with a lot of stuff missing out the middle.” (I’ve got a sort of vest-pocket theory that having the Resolution drop into gear as you round the last 10% is fairly consistent across stories and storytelling modes).
More importantly, she offers us this perfectly structured, perfectly delivered story in the service of compassion. I mean, there’s really no way around it: in telling the story, Zamata inhabits a man who sexually assaulted her (however mildly, by some measures) and brings us to the point of identifying with and feeling pity for him. This is a joke, but it is an incredibly powerful joke, and even if it is an absolutely 100 percent factual account, it is also in its perfect craft an excellent example of moral fiction.
I’ve watched this over and over and over again, and I love it every single time. It is an excellent primer on storytelling. Watch and learn, Oh My Best Belovéd, watch and learn.
This is, in my humble, a damn-near perfect gag–which is saying something, because I find single-camera laugh-track situation comedies almost entirely unbearable to watch. They are the awful, crippled, shambling intermediate link between stage plays (which I like) and modern cinematic multi-camera sitcoms (which I *also* like). That said, the terribly be-shitted wasteland of laugh-track sitcoms was–by very virtue of the enormous piles of shit–nutrient rich soil, and some wonderful things flourished there. Chief among them were gags like this. Here it’s presented as a single, stand-alone joke. But in the episode itself, it was broken up (you can see the rough jump cuts where it’s pasted together here), and developed across the entire half-hour of programming as a sort of lietmotif.
TIP FOR WRITERS: This sort of multi-strand punctuated development is a really great tool both for building and managing tension (and thus carrying the audience along), and for building stories that can grab and hold otherwise non-overlapping audiences (MY SO-CALLED LIFE is sort of a perfect example of this: Most episodes had largely independent narrative threads about the parents and teens, making that show highly watchable to two groups who otherwise can’t agree on much).
ANOTHER TIP FOR WRITERS: When this joke is presented standalone like this, it becomes obvious that it’s a pretty tidy example of a piece that is pleasing and easy to track, in part, because it manages cognitive load gracefully–establishing a premise, building expectant tension, then releasing that tension–with a classic three-part structure.
FINAL NOTE: When I was a kid, it was the general manager’s punchline that I repeated–“as God as my witness, I thought turkeys could fly!”–believing that it was the key to this house. I mean, after all, folks laugh when you say that. But as I get older and re-watch this each year, I find that what really, really makes it is Les Nessman’s earnest reporting of the facts–he is, in fact, in his naiveté, perfectly modeling what a reporter should be and should do–and especially his shell-shocked recounting, during the story’s Tangle, of the turkey’s counterattack. I’ve found that often–especially in literary fiction–authors confuse the Tangle with the Resolution, believing that once they’ve provided the Setup and Tangle, their story is done. I’d previously assumed that this was because they’d mistaken a simple twist for a “twist ending.” But the WKRP Turkey Drop Gag gives a clue as to a deeper reason for why folks confuse the Tangle for the Resolution: It’s because the Tangle is often the source of your story’s real punch, the place in its core that it coils back down into in order to spring out from its heels and knock you silly with the Resolution. (If these terms–Tangle, Resolution–are throwing you, just skim the bulleted bit near the top of the cognitive load post.)