Learning to Read

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James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl and illustrated by Nancy Burkert

When I was a child, infants were not set down before flash cards to drool over words like ball and cat and isosceles. By the time I learned to read, I really wanted to know how to read. I sat in my mother’s lap and sobbed at not being able to decipher for myself the great mysteries held within the pages of the books she read aloud to us. When I arrived at first grade, I was ready.

But a great disappointment awaited me at my little desk facing the chalkboard. When my first book was set down in front of me and we were guided in sounding out the words, all that turned out to be on the page was: “See Spot run.”

I had waited six years for this? What had happened to the mystical adventures of James and his peach infested with humongous insects and Charlie and the misfit children and their chocolate river?

“See Spot run?” For real?

I was crestfallen. Apparently the books I was allowed to read were a completely different animal from the ones my mom got to read. Those deliciously deranged characters and their delectable predicaments were for grown-ups. All I was going to read about was the lackluster life of Spot, whose only motivation was a red ball. This was not the adventure I had signed up for.

The result? I stopped reading. Not entirely, of course. I did read at school when one of the dreary Spot-and-Jim-and-Mary books was set in front of me. I was a good girl and a good student. But I did not become one of those kids who holed up with books in my bedroom. Playing outdoors was much more adventurous than anything I was able to sound out from a page; I would hunt out blue jay’s nests in the tree tops and maybe even find my own chocolate river.

I didn’t establish a reading habit until I was presented with my first seventh-grade book, To Kill a Mocking Bird. Phew! I would not, after all, have to wait to be grown-up to read something that rocked my world. It didn’t hurt that I had the most gifted teacher of my educational career to hold a torch for us as we edged our way into the abyss of the human psyche and the moral choices we face in a not-always-kind world. And how lucky I was that this teacher, Peter Sawaya, would guide me through a good six years of literature, the torch never wavering.

Later Peter had us write in the style of great authors—in the European manner of teaching creative writing. We read, and then imitated, Homer, Melville, Hemingway, Kerouac—our young minds flexing and stretching. I took this task seriously, studying the structure and cadence of each author’s sentences before trying on his or her style in my own tale of ocean crossing or coming of age. At thirteen, I was growing my writing muscle.

All that careful reading, and the nurturing guidance of my mind and my pen, has led me to do what I do today. I hold the torch for others as they edge their way into their own work, flexing and stretching their writing muscles. Sometimes I step in and write in an author’s stead, studying the cadence of his or her sentences before I adopt the author’s voice and set sail into a book that I never would have written on my own. I fall in love with each and every book I shepherd or ghostwrite, just as I fell in love with Ms. Harper Lee’s novel all those years ago.

Thank you, Peter, for handing me To Kill a Mockingbird, the first of many great books to follow.

Related post: My Theory about Fast Readers.

The Unstoppable Corruption of the English Language

“There are two extreme views about punctuation,” linguist David Crystal writes, “the first is that you dont actually need it because its perfectly possible to write down what you want to say without any punctuation marks or capital letters and people can still read it youdontevenneedspacesbetweenwordsreally.” The second is that punctuation is absolutely critical, not only for clarity but also to show other people that you’re educated.

In her New Yorker article A History of Punctuation for the Internet Age, Adrienne Raphel discusses Crystal’s take on punctuation and the internet. Like many linguists, Crystal is pretty laid back about the unstoppable “corruption” of the English language. Linguists don’t even see it as corruption; it’s just the inevitable morphing that’s innate to language.

In fact, in linguistics the word grammar doesn’t mean those pesky rules you have to learn to speak and write English correctly. Grammar, to a linguist, refers to the innate rules users of a language follow without even knowing they’re following them. This kind of grammar is not about right and wrong, but about occurring or not occurring. Thus, to a linguist, the sentence “I ain’t readin’ no frickin’ books ‘bout punctuation” is not an incorrect utterance if that’s the way English is spoken in the speaker’s dialect or group.

All that said . . . I am still a book editor.

Although I do love our ever-changing language and celebrate the style and ingenuity of individual speakers and writers, I also have a thing for the rules of English grammar (and I don’t mean the “grammar” linguists refer to). Misunderstand me correctly (as my Swedish friend likes to say): I’m not saying you should never break the rules. Heck, I broke a rule a couple of sentences back when I ended the sentence with a preposition. But, when it comes to writing in a publishable or cyber-publishable form, know the rules before you break them. That way you can break them well.

That’s when art happens.

~      ~      ~

Interested in reading more musings on grammar? Check out Grammar Matters and Confessions of a Perfectionist.

 

 

 

November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)

Did you know that November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)—a month-long novel-writing frenzy? Thousands of coffee-fueled writers are pounding their keys to reach their goal of producing 50 thousand words before the stroke of midnight on November 30. Read more on the Los Angeles Editors and Writers blog.

Editing Symbols

Just in case you have an editor who still works on hard copy (I do occasionally so I can take a break from my computer), the chart below may help you decipher some of the symbols your editor scrawls in the margins.

This came my way via cyberspace, origin unknown. If you know who the creator is, please let me know so I can add a byline.

This came my way via cyberspace, origin unknown. If you know who the creator is, please let me know.

Grammar Matters: Lie, Lay, Lain, Oh My!

The sound of fingernails on a chalkboard has never bothered me. However, when someone says, “I was laying around,” I cringe from my toenails to the tips of my hair. The worst part of it is this: Because the incorrect form is uttered so much more frequently than the correct form, it’s probably just a matter of time before the wrong verb pops out of my own mouth. The over-exposure effect.

But I have a plan of action to avert, or at least delay, the onset of incorrect verb reiteration. It’s my secret mantra. My concealed weapon against the decrepitude of the English language. It goes like this: Someone unwittingly uses the verb “lay” when it should be the verb “lie” (as in, “I’m going to lay down”), and I focus my special powers and conjure up my mantra: “lie down, lie down, lie down.” . . . That’s it. Kind of like the New Age pronouncement of “Cancel, cancel, cancel” when someone has a negative thought. Of course, I don’t generally say my “mantra” aloud. My goal is not to be obnoxious; I just want to reinforce the correct usage in my own head. I am, after all, a writing coach and book editor. It’s my job to keep this stuff straight.

So, I’m going to do my job and lay it all out for you. (“Wait,” you may be saying, “she said lay!”  Yes, lay is a verb too. It’s just a different verb from lie.)

Here’s the rule:

  • If the verb does not take a direct object, use lie

Examples:

I lie down.

Please lie on your right side.

This verb does not act upon a direct object (noun).

  • If the verb does take a direct object, use lay

Examples:

I lay the book down.

Lay your body down.

In these examples, the book and your body are direct objects. The verb acts upon these nouns. In my own sentence above, “I’m going to lay it all out for you,” it is the direct object.

But it gets a little tricky when we move into the past tense. Now that I’ve drawn a line neatly between lie and lay, I’m going to confuse you by telling you that the past tense form of lie is lay. Oy!

Here’s a table you can refer to, to help you keep this all straight:

—————————————————————————————–

lie (present), lay (past), lain (past participle)

     Examples:

Let’s lie down in the grass.

When he lay on the bed, it creaked under his weight.

He had lain in bed for an hour before falling asleep.

~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~

lay (present), laid (past), laid (past participle)

Examples:

Lay the gun on the table where I can see it,” the cop said.

She laid the book on top of the dresser.

They have laid the issue to rest.

—————————————————————————————–

If you’re feeling a little confused, you’re not alone. (As I said, many people use the wrong form much of the time.) But if you want to use the right form, just remember that the first verb, lie, is the much more common verb—especially in spoken English. (People today usually put things down—or occasionally set things down—rather than lay them down.)

After I put the book back on the shelf, I will lie down on the floor.

In other words, for present tense you’re mostly going to say lie, and for past tense you’re mostly going to say lay.

You might be asking yourself: “Why does any of this matter? People know what I’m trying to say whether I say ‘lie down’ or ‘lay down.’” . . . It’s true, people will know what you’re trying to say . . . but there will be those among us who hear fingernails on a chalkboard.

Think It’s Hard to Get on a Bestseller List?

Amazon bestseller

The sought-after mark of . . . excellence?

Well, yeah, maybe it is. . . .  But not as hard as it used to be.  Why?  Because the bestseller lists—of which there used to be only a handful, a small handful if you count only the ones that counted—are proliferating.  The New York Times Book Review recently announced that their own collection of bestseller lists will be expanding.  They are adding a gaggle of lists, including Travel, Humor, Family, Animals, Politics, Celebrities, Graphic Novels, and more.

Keeping up with the Joneses?  Or maybe the Amazons?  It’s possible; we’re in an age of copycatism . . . Like, for instance, the fact that every humongous website or email host now wants to move their cyber-furniture around when you leave the room. “Facebook did it, it must be good! Quick, let’s reconstruct the menus and tabs while the user goes to the potty!  They won’t even recognize their Facebook Wall—oh wait, we’re going to reconstruct the Wall and call it a Timeline . . .”

Change is good, right?  (I don’t know, sometimes change makes me want to take a nap.)

Perhaps having more bestseller lists will make that prized BESTSELLER honor more accessible . . . and yet, won’t that make it simultaneously less meaningful?  You be the judge . . .

Oh, and you can go to a boot camp, too, to learn how to work the system to get your bestseller badge.  I can’t tell you how many “bestselling” writers I’ve met that I’ve never heard of; nor have you; nor has anyone.  Because they bought or boot-camped their way into bestseller status and were on an Amazon list for a week. Presto!  “Bestselling Author!”

Ah, but I seem to be on a rant.  Too glum for you?  Try this instead, it’ll make you laugh:  18 New Bestseller Lists

Make an Impression with the New Shouting Kindle

The down side of Kindle? Well, there are probably a few, but one is that you can no longer flash the cover of the intellectual book you’re reading so others at the cafe around you will be impressed.

Problem solved: get the new shouting Kindle! It repeatedly shouts the title of the book you’re reading.