Is it a question? Mark it!

A dragon writing down punctuation marks

Heh, heh, heh!

When I was first learning to read (when the dinosaurs still roamed the earth), all those superfluous squiggles on my page represented punctuation–that crazy set of things teachers were excited about but never made much sense.  Dutifully, I learned a comma from a period, and exclamation points from question marks. But when and how to use them?  That was the purview of book publishers and grammar teachers.  What did I care?

Then along came music lessons, and more squiggles.  I started to understand that these marks not only had meaning, but were a secret code that everybody in the world but me seemed to know.

Today, I don’t think much about where punctuation came from, but its importance continues to haunt me, and when I stumble across improper use (or lack of use) of something as important as the question mark, I’m pulled right out of the reading and find myself back in grammar school, raising my hand with an excited, “ooh! ooh!”

Here’s a little of what I mean:

  • Reporters are drilled to learn their five W’s, in order to tell a good, succinct story in reverse pyramid fashion.  Those five W’s though, are imprinted onto us with exclamations, until, in our sleep we see: Who!  What!  When! Where! Why! (and sometimes, How!).  But these five are truly questions we reporters are supposed to have the curiosity to ask. Who? What? When? Where? Why? They are invitations for others to tell us their stories.
  • When someone says, “I wonder what happened to all the cavemen,” he or she is NOT asking a question, but stating their own personal condition, in this case wonderment.  Do not use a question mark if you’re volunteering your own state of being.
  • Now, here’s a tricky one. Do you use a question mark in the middle of a sentence? Hmm. Nope. A question mark denotes the end of a sentence.  But what if you’re writing a story where one character is quoting another:  “John says to me, he says ‘Tom, get the wrench, will you?’ and I do.”  The big clue is the single quotation marks within Tom’s speech.  Tom quoted a complete sentence from his friend, John.  Question mark is okay there.  If the question quoted had been a statement, “Gus, get the wrench,” then you’d use a comma, just to keep things clear.  Tricky, but play with this a while and it will become clearer.  Writing is, after all, supposed to be playful.

The next question (naturally), is how to find improper use of question marks, when more often than not the tricky little devils are not there, but some other punctuation mark is.  It’s easy to skip over what you can’t see.  And Word won’t let you search for a mark that isn’t there.  Here are some tips I use:

  • Read your work OUT LOUD!  At last! An advantage for a lip reader like me.  I am incredibly slow, but seldom miss punctuation errors as a result.  When you read out loud, you’ll catch the inflection in your own voice that will tell you the difference between “I killed a man,” and “I killed a man?” (Please see the great comedy, My Cousin Vinny with Ralph Macchio for a live run at this one).
  • Do a search for any of the 5 W’s mentioned above, and read the sentence around it. You’ll know if there’s a question within.
  • Don’t be confused by a request (question) that sounds like a command (statement).  “Get the dishes done, will you?” he shouted.  The “will you” makes the command a request, which connotes not being prescient enough to know if the command will actually be carried out, even though Billy Bob might smash Nora’s teeth in if she doesn’t comply.

When all is said and done, I hope you have a lot of questions both in and around your stories.  When we question, we challenge the status quo.  We keep our minds alert for new and different results to our hypotheses, and we stay young.  Sometimes it may seem that the world is full of, “been there, done that” experiences, but today is the day someone unique and new to the world is born.  Right now is a moment in time that has culminated from all our past experiences, and while we can predict some things, there are no guarantees about the future.  Be curious. Ask questions, won’t you?  Ask not, whether you’ve seen this path before.  Ask rather, what adventures lay ahead on this path I take today?


If It’s August It Must Be Western Welcome Week

Western Welcome Week

Main Street shuts down and livens up for Western Welcome Week

Western Welcome Week in Littleton Colorado is one of the big public events of the year.  Parades, events of all sorts, even visiting dignitaries from Australia were on hand for a chance to make friends and see the sights in our little town gone major suburb.  I didn’t personally participate in a lot (there’s this thing called “work” to do), but I broke away from my desk for enough to enjoy a taste of Littleton from a new perspective.

State Senator Linda Newell gives tribute to Bega delegates

State Senator Linda Newell gives tribute to Bega delegates

First, I went to the Littleton Welcomes Sister City Bega (pronounced Bee-Gah) Australia gathering.  Every time the calendar hits a three or eight in a decade, Australia sends a delegation to Littleton to share a portion of our life in the States.  From my standpoint in the crowd on Thursday, it looked like approximately 20 delegates had made it over.  The delegates stay in host family homes and for a week share our lifestyle in the West.  The official gathering for this event was in–you guessed it–Bega park.  I haven’t ever really traversed the park before, but there is a large concrete map in the middle of this area that has big stars for Littleton and Bega.  Hey, I would have been satisfied knowing how to pronounce the word, Bega.  I drive by the park all the time.  Who knew it was so cool?  Next time this happens, I understand Littleton will send a delegation to Bega, and visit “Littleton Garden” there.

During the celebration, State Senator Linda Newell was on hand to help with the speeches and give two organizing members of the Australian delegation, Barb and Robert Westimicott (please forgive my spelling here, I’m very rusty on my reporting skills and didn’t talk to the Westimicotts) a State Senate Tribute.  The tribute recognized the Westimicotts and their delegation for helping to strengthen the “invaluable relations” between Bega and Littleton and aspire to “peace and prosperity for years to come.”

On Saturday, I slipped away to see all the excitement on Main Street, with many not-for-profits selling food as fundraisers, and artisans and others setting up booths in the hopes of getting their name out and being part of the general celebration.  Even with temperatures in the mid-90s, there were plenty of people at booths, and listening to live music. Kids wandered with parents to see such things as other kids in the Arapahoe Rescue Patrol, gifts by Angel Concept, and the great people of the Colorado Center for the Blind.  At this booth, I was given a sample of braille typing–in my name. Fantastic!

Colorado Wolves at Western Welcome Week

Spooky (front), Rocky and Yukon with owner Cody on Main Street, Littleton.

And not every “citizen” of Littleton is the two-legged kind.  A man named Cody, brought his pets with him to enjoy the day, and drew a crowd of his own.  His pets, Spooky, Rocky, and Yukon are wolves.  Take that, New York city!  The wolves were incredibly tame, though Yukon particularly stole my heart as he squeezed between Cody’s legs trying to avoid all us scary people looking at him.

Okay, so Western Welcome Week isn’t quite as big as a Superbowl.  It doesn’t compete with a national political convention for excitement.  BUT  I think this event reminds me that being part of a community, no matter the size, is living at its finest.  I learned that good people of all kinds live right near me and I’m looking forward to being a part of this community for a while to come.

Yep, I think you could say I love Littleton, and am enthralled with my little way of life here.

Arapahoe Rescue Patrol at Western Welcome Week

Arapahoe Rescue Patrol at Western Welcome Week

Great Writers Write

Charles Dickens Treasury of World Masterpieces

The greats of writing are seldom one-hit-wonders

They’re rich. They’re famous.  And they’re authors.  Yesterday, I read the Forbes article on the top earning authors of 2013.  And the money that’s listed next to their names is mind-boggling.  Take a look:

  1. E.L. James – $95 million.  She wrote the 50 Shades trilogy and is going strong.  I’ve tried on a few occasions to read the first book and keep putting it down.  In my reading snobbery, I’m judging the quality of the writing and not having fun with a heroine half my age and a trite business executive as the hero.  This book must capture the old saying that power in this world belongs to old men and young women.  Shame on me for not reading more.  I’ll have to try again.
  2. James Patterson – $91 million.  I’ve read and enjoyed a few of his books, but Forbes pointed out 1 of every 17 hardcovers sold in the U.S. is his. Wow!
  3. Susan Collins – $55 million. You remember The Hunger Games?  Yes, the books that make a game out of killing each other. The middle-schoolers ate up these books according to my librarian neighbor.  And with the movies out, I’m sure the numbers will grow.  In my writing snobbery, I know I would never reach into such moral bankruptcy as to make people kill each other gladiator style for the entertainment of others. Hmm…
  4. Bill O’Reilly (yes THAT Bill O’Reilly) $28 million.  I have to admit, I love books about Lincoln and Kennedy, but because of my own political leanings never even took a look at O’Reilly’s books.  I think I need to think that through again.

Before this becomes an exercise in self-flagellation and narrow-mindedness on my part, I’ll stop and look for the lessons.  Be sure to check the Forbes’ link to read the whole article. Great stuff.

Here’s what I’m learning from this star-gazing exercise:

  • Write!  It’s great fun to talk about writing, think about writing and telling my friends I’m “an author,” but real people of letters write.  Danielle Steele writes 3 books a year. And she’s done this for forty years.  At Ms. Steele’s $26 million, there is great value in production.
  • Go out of your comfort zone. Many of the top books are books I’d have a problem with in terms of “what kind of morals are these books producing?”  But I write mysteries.  How moral is it to kill each other?  And even though I kill characters and not people, I too am killing for entertainment.  This is one to think about big time.
  • Be yourself.  These successful authors may write within a genre, but I don’t have the impression that they write for a genre.  They write great stories that happen to fall into a convenient category, and some smart publisher snaps them up.  On the other hand, the 50 Shades trilogy falls far outside of “romance,” and may not have made it with traditional publishing.  Ms. James wrote her novels as a fan-fiction tribute to the Twilight series.  She just ratcheted up to an adult format by adding in the sex. Then she sold via e-books, only later going the paper route. Interesting.
  • You can’t dissect success, you can only produce it.  Forbes’ article was well written and had some interesting points, one of which is that publishers often miss the boat by rejecting that next great best seller.  The reason they reject it is because the book doesn’t make business sense.  It doesn’t comfortably fit into the genres they sell, and the story’s originality makes it hard to see the success coming.  Publishers play on what sold well in the past to purchase for the future.  But the public and the readers are the ones who make a book jump from published to “great success.”  Think I’ll go see if I can produce some more story today.

Thing is, whether you’re prolific in your genre (as in Steele and Patterson), or you’re a break out best seller (like James), there is every chance of success based on the principles of every successful person, no matter the field:

  • Love what you do
  • Do what you do to the best of your capabilities
  • Believe in yourself
  • And, as my younger daughter used to say to me daily, “Never give up! Never give up!”

Wishing you a day of your own personal success.