Grammar and usage for writers (Part II)

This week we’ll cover the following fascinating topics: every day v. everyday, the misplaced ‘only,’ em dashes v. en dashes, subjunctive mood and serial commas. And we’ll do it with the help of Stephanie Perkins‘ Lola Nolan and Cricket Bell!

1. People misuse ‘everyday’ every day

You breath every day. You may daydream about Cricket Bell every day. But you do not breathe everyday or daydream everyday. “Everyday” is an adjective and “every day” is an adverb and therefore they are two different things. As an adjective, you can use “everyday” to mean “ordinary,” but it must be used as one word to modify a noun.

  • For Lola, costumes are everyday outfits.

Here, “everyday” is modifying the noun “outfits” in the same way you that you could use any other adjective.

  • Costumes are creative outfits.
  • Costumes are fun outfits.

On the other hand, “every day” means the same thing as “each day.”

  • Lola wears costumes every day.
  • I daydream about Cricket Bell every day.

2. If only we knew where to place ‘only’

This one requires a little bit of thinking as you write, but it’s actually fairly simple.

  • Only Cricket loves Lola. (This means that no one else loves Lola but Cricket — not her dads, her mom or her friends.)
  • Cricket only loves Lola. (This means that Cricket has no emotion toward Lola except love.)
  • Cricket loves only Lola. (This means that Cricket loves no one else but Lola.)

Do you see what I did there?

3. There are two kinds of dashes? (As Kristen requested)

Believe it or not, there are! Meet two of my good friends: En Dash and Em Dash. You probably know Em Dash by his nickname “Dash,” or by the fact that I use him entirely too much in my writing. (I love Em Dash so much that I wish I could have him tattooed on my other wrist as a companion to my interrobang tat. However, because Em Dash is essentially just a line, I feel like this isn’t something I should pay to have permanently inked on my body. I could simply Sharpie that sucker onto my other wrist on the days I want him hang out with Interrobang and me.)

*A hyphen is not a baby dash! Do not use a hyphen in place of a dash. Now, forget about hyphens for now. We’ll talk about them on another exciting Thursday.

To help you get better acquainted with En Dash and Em Dash, it might help you to understand why they have these names. It’s actually quite simple: Traditionally, the em dash is as long as the typeset capital M and the en dash is as long as the typeset capital N. That’s it. Nothing fancy!

The en dash is really used only in situations where you’re referencing periods of time.

  • Cricket and Lola will be at Calliope’s skating competition November 3-November 5. (Simple enough, right?)

The em dash is commonly used for these purposes:

  • To set off parenthetical material or a list: There are many things Lola liked about Cricket his height, his inventive mind and his pants that made her fall head over heels for him.
  • For emphasis that dramatically ends a sentence: Lola was heartbroken and the only boy she wanted to see was the very boy she’d been avoiding Cricket.

Notes on em dashes:

  • You can create an em dash with this keyboard shortcut: shift + option + hyphen. Use this enough and you don’t even have to think about it — your fingers just do it. If you just can’t get it down, two hyphens will suffice.
  • If you write in Scrivener (you know, because Scrivener is awesome), you can type two hyphens in a row and Scrivener will magically transform them into an em dash for you!

4. If I were you, I’d learn when to use subjunctive mood. (As Liza requested)

The subjunctive should be used when you’re talking about any condition that’s contrary to fact, including a wish, a doubt, a prayer, a desire, a hope or a request. Often, a good indicator that the subjunctive mood should be used is the presence of the word “if” — BUT NOT ALWAYS.

  • If I was were Lola (but I’m not), I’d take Cricket to the dance.
  • If Max wasn’t weren’t such a jerk (but he is), maybe readers would like him.
  • I wish I was were Cricket’s neighbor (but I’m not).

Because we’re talking about something that isn’t true, we use the subjunctive mood of the verb “to be.” (The most common errors made with the subjunctive mood are made with this verb.)

But “if” won’t always be there to clue you in that the subjunctive is needed. And sometimes “if” will appear in a sentence just to make you think you need the subjunctive, but this a deceitful “if”! Here are some more specific rules about when to use the subjunctive. *These aren’t ALL the rules of the subjunctive — just the ones I think you’re most likely to encounter when you’re writing.

1. Use the subjunctive after “as if.”

  • Max acts as if he were a real catch.

2. Use it for most dependent clauses beginning with “if.” (Don’t remember the difference between independent and dependent clauses? No problem. Here’s a simple refresher.)

  • If I were Lola’s dads (but I’m not), I wouldn’t want her dating Max either.
  • If loving Cricket is wrong, I don’t want to be right. (I don’t believe loving Cricket is actually wrong. “Is” is the present tense of the subjunctive mood.)

What about these?

  • If Cricket’s invention works, he will be famous. (The “if” here introduces a condition that could be true. Cricket’s invention might work and it might not work; however, what’s important here is that that statement we’re making isn’t known to be false. Because of this, we use the indicative mood for the verb “works.”)
  • Cricket must have gone home if he is not in Lola’s room. (If we know that Cricket isn’t in Lola’s room, then we use the indicative instead of the subjunctive because the subjunctive is used only when there’s a condition contrary to fact.)

3. If the verb in the independent clause (IC) is in the indicative mood, the verb in the dependent clause (DC) is also usually in the indicative. If the verb in the IC is in the conditional mood, the verb in the DC is usually in the subjunctive. (OK, take a deep breath and bear with me. This is easier than it sounds)

  • Lola can date Cricket if she wants to. (Can and want are both indicative)
  • Lola could fix that dress were she given the right tools. (Could is conditional. Were is subjunctive.)

As I said before, these aren’t ALL the rules for the subjunctive mood, but hopefully this is enough to give you a general understanding of when to use it.

*If you’re writing dialogue, your characters might not necessarily use the subjunctive mood correctly in their speech. Unless, of course, your character is an English professor or a nerdy journalist like I am.

5. Who gives a f*@k about the Oxford comma? (As China requested)

I don’t. Well, actually, I kind of do. Let me explain. I don’t understand why people get into arguments over the Oxford comma, or serial comma, because one isn’t right and one isn’t wrong. (Is it weird that I know people who get into such arguments? Do I just hang out with the wrong kind of people?) The serial comma basically comes down to a style choice. Most book publishers opt for the serial comma, and you’ll find it in style guides like Chicago and APA.

However, I’m a formally trained journalist who was taught that the AP Style Guide is essentially a canonical text. Most journalists don’t use the serial comma — unless, of course, we need it for clarification purposes. It’s not that we inherently dislike the serial comma. In fact, a lot of it has to do with history. Way back in the day, newspapers were printed using stamps that cost a lot of money and took a lot of time to move around. Sticking in an extra comma in a series meant that the printer would have to physically shift over an entire stamp for that comma — a comma that really wasn’t even necessary most of the time. If you had to go to all that trouble every time you wanted to use an Oxford comma, you’d quit using it, too.

Yes, I do write even my WIP in AP Style. I use the serial comma only for clarification purposes, I capitalize “OK” when my characters say it, and until a couple years ago, I wrote “website” as “web site.” My crit partners deal with it. They’re awesome.

Well, that was exhausting, huh? Looking for a fun read with some eye candy? Check out my interview with Ian Somerhalder!

Dying to read more grammar tips? Last week we went over these topics: you and I v. you and me, between v. among, gerunds and possessives, farther v. further and using commas when addressing people. And we did all of this with the help of Katniss and Peeta!

My YA book boy crushes

In honor of Valentine’s Day, I thought I’d introduce you to three of my YA boy crushes. Don’t worry — there will be no possessive, sparkling undead or cake-decorating baker’s sons here! In no particular order…

Cricket Bell, Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins

It’s widely acknowledged that no one can write swoon-worthy teenage boys like Stephanie Perkins. (If that’s not widely acknowledged, then it’s time for the world to acknowledge it…widely.) Yes, I know there’s the adorable Etienne St. Clair with his perfect hair and his British accent, but when it comes to contemporary YA boys, there’s just something about Cricket. He’s the tall, awkward boy next door who makes geek look hot. Plus he’s a super smart (and wealthy) inventor who’s related to Alexander Graham Bell. And then there are the pants. Am I right?

Ky Markham, Matched by Allie Condie (Spoilers below!)

I love dystopian fiction so I had to choose at least one boy who lives in a totalitarian regime. I considered the nearly fearless Tobias aka “Four” from Divergent, but there’s just something about the name Tobias that makes me picture David Cross in denim cutoffs. I was severely tempted to pick Alex Sheathes from Delirium — his hair is the color of “autumn leaves” and he loves even though it’s illegal. And then there’s that heartbreakingly romantic scene at the end of the book where he sacrifices himself to save Lena … sigh. But I’m giving crush #2 to Ky because he’s the mysterious blue-eyed, dark-haired boy who suffers in silence over his tragic past and teaches Cassia about words and creativity and love. He gives Cassia forbidden poetry and the gift of writing, and the “I love you” scene just makes me melt. I must admit that I’ve never before wanted two fictional characters to kiss so much … except for in a Perkins novel, of course.

Augustus Waters, The Fault In Our Stars by John Green (Spoilers below!)

Oh, Augustus, you one-legged, beautiful heartthrob, you. Your life may have been short, but my love for you will always linger. Augustus is smart and charming and witty and ridiculously sweet. He actually said to Hazel, “It would be a privilege to have my heart broken by you.” Plus, he used his dying wish to fulfill Hazel’s dream of meeting her favorite author. (I’m tearing up just thinking about it.) Speaking of which, John Green, you owe me $2.95 for the box of Kleenex I went through while reading the last few chapters.

Who are your top YA book boy crushes? Don’t say Edward Cullen. Don’t say Edward Cullen. Don’t say Edward Cullen.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

We’re going to go celebrate with diamonds, champagne and a few dozen roses! (Actually, we’re going to order takeout and catch up on some Criminal Minds — because nothing says romance like a sexual sadist murderer terrorizing a small town, right?)

Writerly advice from the experts

I had the pleasure of attending the AJC Decatur Book Festival this weekend, meeting some of my favorite authors and taking away a little bit of writing advice and inspiration as well. I kicked off the festival in an amazing way by joining the lovely Vania Stoyanova and some of her YA author and book blogger friends for breakfast. It was fun matching Twitter photos with faces and recognizing writers from the back pages of their books — plus, the J. Christopher’s fruit cornucopia was delicious as usual.

Over the course of the festival, my friend China and I attended some panels, talked books with fellow YA lovers and tried not to go too fangirl when we spotted our favorite writers casually strolling the streets of Decatur. And here are some of the things I learned — from the experts. Some are things we’ve all heard before, but I know I can do with a little reminder now and then. And a signed book or two sure doesn’t hurt.

Tension is important … but so is kissing.

Beth Revis and Myra McEntire bantered throughout their talk on “Past and Future Loves,” with Beth repeatedly saying how she loves to kill off characters and “blow stuff up” while Myra argued that as a writer, she just wants to “get to the kissing.” But while Myra’s editor encouraged her to move back the kissing in “Hourglass,” increase the tension and leave the reader wanting the kiss just as badly as the protagonist, Beth’s editor said that “Across The Universe” was missing a little something and Beth joked that it needed more death and destruction. What did her editor want? More romance. More kissing.

The lesson here: Action, adventure, magic, intrigue and plot twists are just as important as the romance — even if it’s not the main storyline. And sometimes you just need to make the reader wait for it. After all, the anticipation and the build-up are so much better than the actual kiss.

There are many paths to publication.

Perhaps one of the most comforting (and slightly unnerving) things I learned was how different — and difficult — a novelist’s journey to publication can be. Take Beth Revis for example. She wrote 10 manuscripts over 10 years. The tenth one was finally published. Can you imagine dealing with that kind of rejection, but remaining so dedicated to your dream? Talk about earning it! Then I heard Jennifer Jabaley tell the story of her first novel: She was home with her newborn son and looking for something to do so she decided to write a book. Pretty soon she’d written “Lipstick Apology” and before she knew it, she had an agent and a published manuscript. Bubbly, peppy and adorably blonde, Jennifer joked that people probably compare her to Elle Woods in “Legally Blonde,” saying they must ask, “Do you think she woke up one morning and said, ‘I think I’ll write a book today’?”

Here’s what I’m going to take away from this: The first book could be the one. If so, that’s excellent. Rock on! However, the ninth, tenth or eleventh book could be the one. It might be a discouraging journey at times, but if you stick with it you’re going to get there.

Teens can fall madly and deeply in love…and it can last.

I had my share of boyfriends in high school, but I was never in love with any of them. Perhaps I bought into what my mother always said and didn’t believe that teenagers could fall in love. Perhaps my high school boyfriends were really nothing more than homecoming dates and an obligatory reply to the age-old question of “what was your first kiss like?” Regardless, I was struck by something Stephanie Perkins said. I’m paraphrasing here, but this is the gist of it: “Teens really can fall in love. I got married as a teenager — don’t tell your parents I said that — but I married my best friend and we just celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary.” And Beth Revis? She married her high school sweetheart, too.

If you’re writing YA, you’re not just writing lust or puppy love,  you could be writing a true love story. Just don’t forget to blow some stuff up, too.

Sometimes you just can’t help but write from experience.

I have a lot of words under my belt — news articles, magazine features, blog posts, unfinished manuscripts, angst-ridden teen poetry that I really need to burn already, etc. — and it all has a little bit of me in it. It might be the way I phrase things, my overuse of the em dash or my tendency to use words I learned only for GRE test-taking purposes, but it’s definitely there. And it tends to creep into the fiction I write as well. Whether it’s putting a little bit of you into your protagonist, assigning a personal experience to a character or killing off a whole lot of people in your WIP when you’ve just had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, it’s there.

I know I’ve done it, I bet you’ve done it, and published novelists have too. Elizabeth Eulberg, Stephanie Perkins, Jennifer Jabaley and Terra McVoy all owned up to. We’re writers, it happens. Your art can easily become a reflection of you and your experiences, which can be both a blessing and a curse.

Don’t alienate your audience.

While I met some super duper, amazingly friendly, way-talented authors this weekend, I also met some who were…uh…not-so-amazing. (Yeah, that’s a nice way to phrase it.) You see, I heard people like Myra McEntire and Elizabeth Eulberg speak whose novels I’ve never read, but after hearing their insight and witnessing their personalities, I can’t wait to read their work. They love what they do and they love their fans — what more could a writer or reader want? And Stephanie Perkins and Beth Revis totally lived up to my author-crush expectations — they, too, are doing what they love and loving their audience for supporting them.

But I met other published authors this weekend (none of whom I’ve named in this post) — as well as book bloggers and aspiring novelists — who had a different sort of outlook. There was a holier-than-thou attitude that permeated our conversations. There were judgmental questions like, “Oh, you haven’t read my book? Well, why not?” and looks that clearly said, “You’re not a best-selling author? And you’re here why?” Not cool.

If you’re writing YA — or any genre for that matter — if you’re attending book festivals and interacting with fans, bloggers and aspiring novelists (you know, your very demographic), then at least convincingly feign interest in them or offer some sort of gratitude for their readership. Luckily, these people are few and far between — 99.9 percent of the writers I met were truly awesome people who were overjoyed that readers wanted to talk to them or have them sign a book. As for the others, guess what? You just lost a potential reader.

Overall, the festival was awesome, I have some freshly signed books on my shelves, and I was so inspired that I actually woke up this morning and added 3,000 words to the WIP I haven’t touched in a more than month. The only downside? I wasn’t lucky enough to acquire one of the 20 copies of “Lola And The Boy Next Door” that were briefly for sale. Unfortunately, a mere three to four people snatched up all of them. Oh, well. There’s always pre-ordering. ;)

Photo: Terra McVoy, Elizabeth Eulberg, Stephanie Perkins and Jennifer Jabaley at “A Real Girl Conversation About Writing Real Girl Books”