Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Grammar Pet Peeves

From the Speakers: COME TOGETHER by The Beatles

Some friends of mine think I'm a grammar Nazi--I deny it. Speaking with correct grammar is hard, especially if you're surrounded by people who don't care whether you speak correctly or not. But, since I love my friends so much and would never want them to be embarrassed by using the wrong word in front of someone important to them, I often call them out.

Plus it's funny.

So here are my top three most amusing grammar mistakes that I hear all the time:

1. Lie vs. Lay
It was truly a curse when I learned the rule of when to use "lie" and when to use "lay." The short explanation is that you lay down SOMETHING. There has to be an object to lay down. So when someone says "I'm going to lay down for a while," I just want to ask. "Lay what down?"

And how can so many hit songs make it to the radio with this incorrect lyric in their refrains? Take the song CHASING CARS by Snow Patrol--"If I lay here, If I just lay here . . . " If you lay WHAT there!? Doesn't someone check these things? The craziest thing about that song is that he gets it right in the very next line! Or, how about THE LAZY SONG by Bruno Mars: "I just wanna lay in my bed . . . ." LAY WHAT IN YOUR BED!? DON'T LEAVE ME HANGING, BRUNO MARS!

2. Apostrophe + S
You should read a book called, EATS, SHOOTS AND LEAVES. There are some hilarious examples of apostrophe + s misused in there.

For some reason, I see this all the time on T-shirts. I have no idea why. But I was at the triangle heart walk this weekend, and one group's shirts (I'll leave them anonymous) said something along the lines of "All heart's are worth fighting for."

Admirable sentiments. But wrong. All hearts are worth fighting for. All "heart's" . . . makes no sense. Thanks for supporting, and for bringing laughter to we few who firmly grasp the rules of grammar.

I bought a T-shirt from my high school's marching band that says "All The World's A Stage--Inspired by the writing's of William Shakespeare." DOH! How are you going to misuse an apostrophe (it should be "writings") while paying homage to one of the greatest writers of all time? Lord.

3. Mixing and Matching Sayings
This has less to do with rules of grammar than the other two, but it's my favorite. People mix and match sayings and idioms all the time, and no one really notices because they're analogies, and most of the time we know what they're trying to say, so we hear it correctly.

Here's a good one: "Life threw me for a curve ball." No. It didn't. Perhaps it threw you a curve ball, or maybe it threw you for a loop, but I do not think it threw you for a curve ball. That'd be strange indeed.

Another one I heard: "Give me a bone, already!" Wait, what? How about I give you a break? Or, I'll throw you a bone, and chock this mistake up to you being so exasperated you can't even get your sayings right. Your erroneously implied innuendo is hilarious, though.

This one is infamous: "I could care less what you do!" So . . . you care what I do? Then why are you saying it like you don't? This phrase is notorious for stopping an argument in its tracks, because someone always says this in a heated moment, like an angry parent telling an unruly child to get out of the house or something, and the parent realizes he said that wrong, and the kid's like, "Wait, are you kicking me out or telling me you love me?" And the parent stammers and the kid's looking around . . . it's a disaster. Make this phrase negative: I couldn't care less.

One day I heard President Obama mix and match a saying and about died laughing. I wish I could remember that one--it was great.

Keep your ears out for these mistakes. There are thousands of them everyday, and you'll go crazy if you try to correct them all (and people around you will hate you), so just sit back and enjoy them. Sometimes you'll just recognize them and feel smarter than everyone else, but other times they will make you bust a gut.

I'm going to be really embarrassed if there's a grammatical error in this post.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Radio Star

From the Speakers: DROWNING YOU IN FEAR by Scary Kids Scaring Kids

Big news!!

A while back, I mentioned here on my blog that my story "Good Business, With Guns" was going to be featured on a science fiction radio program. Well . . . IT AIRED YESTERDAY!

It was so cool listening to some voice actor I've never met read and interpret my words over the radio, so awesome wondering how many people were tuning in from who knows where, getting to know me through my work and enjoying something I had created.

One thought that crossed my mind: the station is out of Maine, which is where Stephen King, one of my favorite authors, lives. Dare I believe it barely possible that he might have tuned in? That someone whose work I've read for years actually got to listen to some of mine? He probably didn't, of course, but it's still fun to imagine.

I know what you're thinking (or I hope I do)--you're thinking "Oh no! I missed the broadcast." Fear not. The podcast is available online. Here's the link: My story starts about 12 minutes and 13 seconds into the show, and lasts for about 12 minutes. Go listen and tell me what you think!

If you want to follow along with the reading, here's how it appears at Ray Gun Revival:


Saturday, September 24, 2011

Short Stuff


Don't tell the instructor, but since I have to sit through a lot of classes about stuff I already know lately, I've taken advantage of the time to do some writing. I have this little notebook that can fit about 150 words on a page. This past week, whenever things got dull in class, I've been seeing if I can fit a whole, complete story on a single page.

It's been really fun--writing these short-short stories, often called "flash fiction" because of how fast you can read them, is a lot different than writing a short story of 2500 words or more. Flash fiction usually wraps up in under 1000 words. The shorter, the tougher to write, and the wittier they have to be.

There are a lot of markets out there for flash fiction. I used to write more of it, like when I was in a creative writing class and the professor would give us a prompt and a few minutes to work on it. I'd always try to finish a story before she began her lesson. I even placed in a short-short fiction contest called the "Mini Max Competition" at UNC, which is a great competition in which a ton of talent reveals itself. The story which placed was later published in Barbaric Yawp Magazine.

So this past week I've taken a break from the longer pieces I have under construction and spent some time writing flash fiction. I've finished three. You can't do that with longer short stories--start with nothing on Monday and have three pieces ready to send to magazines for consideration on Friday.

Mixed feelings about it, though. Breaking from the longer pieces, including a novel I'm writing, means risking that it becomes slightly stagnant and harder to pick up where I left off. Which is why I try to institute a few rules when writing a novel, one of which is: When you stop writing for the day, know where you will go with it when you pick it up tomorrow. That way, I don't sit down because I'm supposed to and just twiddle my thumbs. Instead I think, "Oh yeah, gotta get to work because my character has this thing to do next." Thus, I can take a step away and write three flashes, without risk of writer's block taking over.

It's all about staying one step ahead.

As is so often the case, writing illuminates life lessons.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Old Acquaintances, New Friends

From the Speakers: LIKE A STONE by Audioslave

So recently I was looking back through stories that I had retired, meaning that I wrote them and thought they were pretty good, so I shopped them out to a few appropriate magazines. These stories were rejected a number of times, with no real improvement in feedback after some moderate revision. Once I couldn't think of any more magazines to try, I stopped bothering with each story and moved on to whatever was hot at the time.

Eventually I forgot about them. They retreated to a place in my mind like old acquaintances do, where you remember being fond of them, once upon a time, but time and distance has separated you. Indeed, the characters themselves, upon revisiting the story, greatly resemble real acquaintances; I reread a retired story and thought, "Oh, yeah I remember you. I remember that quirk you had, that thing you always did, that perspective you had."

Then something strange happened. I discovered something I never knew about one particular story, something that made me want to get to know it again. If it were a real person, I might say, "Wow! All this time we've known each other and I've never known that. We should catch up sometime!"

And that's exactly what happened. In this case, something I had taken for granted in the story suddenly seemed wrong. Specifically, in this story my main character finds himself locked inside a lion's cage, unable to free himself. In the retired version, the cage is empty except for him. But when I reread it, I suddenly thought, "Oh, the lion is actually supposed to be INSIDE the cage with him!" With this new idea in mind, I reworked the story and now it's something completely new to me and, I think, a lot better. An old acquaintance has become a new friend.

Now, we'll see if those magazines will react the same way I did. In general, I never submit the same story to a magazine that's already rejected it, but in this case it's so drastically different that it's more or less new. Just to be safe, maybe I'll change the title. :)

This has happened before, most noticeably with a story called "Tom the Sheller," originally entitled "Shell Me." The newer story was ASTRONOMICALLY better than the original, and it got published in Electric Spec magazine. Here's the link: To this day it is probably my favorite short story I've ever written. I hope you all enjoy it, too!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

You Do What You Can

From the Speakers: BURIED MYSELF ALIVE by The Used

It sucks, but sometimes the day job gets in the way of your writing. This was something I was loathe to believe just a few short weeks ago when I was a student, and then later when I had the summer off, waiting to start my new career. One thing I always had a lot of was time, and one thing I had few of was obligations. All that free time was great for being productive on the page.

But now that I've started working, that routine I was used to is a thing of the past. Today, after work, I had about an hour and a half to get home and do whatever before going to the gym, after which I had to eat dinner and get my stuff together for work the next day.

I sat down at my computer and had to face reality. I didn't have the time I needed to get jazzed and write two thousand words on the next chapter of the novel I'm writing, or even to finish the half-completed short story that's been begging my for completion. Soon, I'll have to work twelve hour shifts, and my conclusion is that no (or very little) writing will get done those days. I wanted to forget about it then, maybe crawl in bed or nap or pick up a book and relax for a while when I had the chance.

But I'm sure very few great writers became great this way. They did what they could when they could. So that's what I did--I worked on two short-short pieces, one of which I wrote after performing the exercises discussed yesterday--and managed to submit one to a magazine I've been looking at for a while. Keep your fingers crossed--hopefully I'll have more links for you guys to check out before long. Until then, I'll keep doing what I can.

Hope you're doing the same in your lives, whatever that might be.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

What's in your Wallet?

From the Speakers: BROKEN by Stream of Passion
Just Read: REAL MONEY by Jim Cramer--Great book for young investors like myself!
Reading Now: THE INNER CIRCLE by Brad Meltzer

Time for more writing exercises.

I managed to write two short-shorts today using this exercise. It's great for getting to the heart of characters, and we all know character-based stories are the ones everybody loves. So here goes:

Find a few pictures of people (characters) you don't know--newspapers and magazines are great sources, but I'm sure Google Images would suffice--and study them one by one for a minute or so. After that minute, make a list of things they might carry in their wallet or purse. Get creative with it and make some leaps and assumptions about them. You'll be surprised by what you think up.

Here's mine. I know you can't see the pictures I'm looking at, but maybe if I've done a good enough job, you'll see the character I saw in my head.

Picture 1: In her purse, she carried a special theater ticket, a plane ticket to a conference, a pen light, neosporin, bandaids, spare earrings, drug company pens.
Picture 2: In his wallet, he had an AHA Basic Life Support card, gym card, library card, a many-folded piece of paper with a list of medications, an unsigned slip of paper with "Thank you" handwritten on it.
Picture 3: In her purse, she had an emergency makeup kit, five spare pens, a creased pocket notebook, a St. Jude prayer card, a miniature metal cross that's warped and has black marks on it.
Picture 4: In his wallet, he carried gift cards, coupons, a list of phone numbers for influential people, directions to a country club, an eighteen-hole score card three under par.
Picture 5: In her purse, she had a spare pair of glasses, a pack of Crest white strips, an empty cartridge of lipstick, pictures of her family, sticky notes, the soccer coaches' phone numbers, and lots of gum wrapper trash.

Okay, there are my people. Now I can throw them all into a situation and make a story out of it. Personally I'm most intrigued by the fourth guy because it seems like he tries to look rich for other people, and the first lady because she looks like she's got a unique job or hobby that would make great details for a character's back story.


Monday, September 12, 2011

New Jobs, Old Jobs

From the Speakers: ACHILLES LAST STAND by Led Zeppelin

Started a new job today. I'm a nurse at Duke Hospital during the day, writer by night now. Unless I work night shift. Then I'm a sleeper by day, nurse by night.

It's pretty cool starting a new career. I've been in healthcare now for a little over a year, but now it's the big time. Helping patients is almost always incredibly rewarding--if you have the calling for it--but there are other perks, too. What better way to come up with new characters than to work in a place where new people are constantly moving in and out and getting to know you in between? I'm sure the stories I'll hear from them can fill volumes.

I'm stoked about my new job, but what's REALLY cool is how awesome of a profession nursing is when you're a writer. There's all kinds of material, yeah, but the actual business of being a writer suits itself nicely. I'm thinking working three twelve hour shifts per week and writing the other four is going to work out nicely. I hate to admit this sometimes, but writing (mine, at least) seems to be easier when you're in a routine: wake up, eat, relax, exercise, shower, sit down and get to work at your desk that's nestled in the corner beneath your rejection letters and your writing words of wisdom. Somehow it primes the creative juices.

In other news, today marks three weeks since the publication of my latest short story, "Good Business, With Guns." If you haven't checked it out yet, here's the link: Tell me what you think!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Greater than Fiction

From the Speakers: BROKEN STATUES by We Came As Romans

I've been sick most of the weekend, so excuse the blogging absence. And I mean sick, too, as if I were Silly Sammy Slick sipping six sodas. But I'm back in action today, September 11, finishing this blog and moving on to some short stories that have been waiting patiently for me to get to them for some time.

It was truly moving to turn on the NFL this afternoon and see all the 9/11 tributes, the homages paid, the lives remembered, and the stories told. The stories are just overwhelming. They are more poignant, more personal, and more human than any I've ever read in fiction. If you met their equal within the pages of a book, please, tell me where I can find it.

It's well known that real life is often more unbelievable and amazing than the things people dream up and write about. Thus, the term "Stranger than Fiction" exists. But the 9/11 stories are Greater than Fiction. How can any writer of fiction hope to match that kind of magnitude? To strike that close to the heart? To have that kind of an impact? In my humble opinion, they can't. All we can do is strive for it, but personally I think that's the way it should be. In these arenas, if in few others, nonfiction reigns supreme. Maybe that's why stories like those about 9/11 and Pearl Harbor and Band of Brothers will forever bring tears to my eyes and raise the temperature of my blood.

There are so many stories, I thought I would pick one to share: if you are an American and do not know the name Welles Remy Crowther, you should. He set the bar.

As with all things, life goes on. I think it was MLK who said "We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope." A hard thing to strive for; a lot to ask. I admire those left behind on 9/11, who had to rebuild their lives and their hearts and try to find reason to live. But there's always a reason to live, a reason to hope. When you die, you're done, but while you're here, you have potential--to do good, to help people, to positively impact others. I hope I can positively impact others through my respective careers. Maybe I will be lucky enough to create a character like one of the many I've heard about today, and someone will read about him or her, and that someone will decide to live life in a better way.

We can only hope.

God Bless America.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011


From the Speakers: WARNING by Incubus

When working on a longer piece of writing, like the novel I'm 30,000 words into, it helps me to put it down for a day or two and let it sit. The words come so hot most of the time that it's like I give them time to cool off before I go back and reread what I've written, so I don't burn myself.

This is the time to write a short story. As I've said before, it's inevitable that you think up a good idea for a short story while in the midst of a bigger project, sometimes more than one. Right now I have three, and it crowds the brain having them all in there waiting to come out.

Plus, there's a few stories I already wrote that need to be edited and shopped out to magazines.

Plus, there's a few stories that are currently being reviewed by magazines.

Sitting at my desk, staring at my computer and wondering what I want to work on today, there's a lot to choose from, and it all needs doing. Usually, writing is a break from life--a way to escape for a bit, which is why I rarely write stories about ordinary people doing ordinary things (more on that at a later date). But lately it seems juggling my writing duties is a good analogy to handling life. I'm starting a new job on Monday, have some work to do before I get there, plus staying true to a workout program, plus I just started coaching a sports club . . . I never thought I'd be this busy BEFORE starting work. Hopefully the skills I've been practicing--juggling my writing life--will translate nicely into the rest of my life.

That said, as busy and chaotic and cluttered and sometimes exasperatingly stressful as writing can be, it is still the ultimate escape. For a few hours a day I am in my own world (or worlds). It's art--man's greatest drug. Wouldn't trade it for the world.

Let's get to work.

PS--I added some links to my other stories off to the left. Check them out! I'd love to hear what you think of them.

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Stubborn Story

From the Speakers: EVERYTHING IS A MEMORY by Seneca
Just Read: SOVAY by Celia Rees--Really came to enjoy the characters and how well the period of this book was conveyed. Good read.

The best feeling in the world is when you're sitting on the couch, vegging out, nothing really going on, no brainwaves sailing through your head, not pondering anything, not worrying about anything . . . and suddenly, unbidden and out of the blue, comes this idea, fully-formed, dense with details, sprinting full-speed to take over all that previously unoccupied space in your mind. It is the spontaneous story, the one that practically writes itself, very little work required.

This is not what happened to me today.

I had everything right in my head--that is to say, I was spacing out, hoping a story might fly in there--but the only thing that came was this what-if question, the seed of a story but not really the story itself: You know how sometimes music can take over your mind, transport you, give you the chills, make you feel high almost? Well, what if you could listen to music like people do drugs? What are the limits?

I thought this was a very intriguing question, and a good springboard for a story. But . . . that was it. That was all I had. No characters, no setting, no motivation, nothing. But it was too interesting for me to ignore, so I sat down and tried. It's times like these you feel like you're not a writer but a miner, or maybe a paleontologist--you're covered in dirt, using every tool in the book, from jackhammer to toothbrush, to try to dig up this story, but it's just so deep and so fragile that unearthing it is mind-numbingly tedious. It's things like these I call the "stubborn story." You know it's there. You know it's good. And it knows you want to uncover it, but for some reason it refuses to let you. This is frustrating to the extreme.

I find that whenever this happens, other little bits of stories reveal themselves similarly, and then all at once I realize all these bits are part of the same story, and then . . .VIOLA! The story decides it's done teasing you, and appears fully formed.

So, until then, story. Until then.