‘And’ Abuse: Are Your Conjunctions Out of Control?

Way back in my youth, I was taught that one should never start a sentence with “and” or “but.”  It was uncouth, uneducated and just plain wrong.

But now I do it all the time. And I see other writers doing it, too.

Why not? “And” and “but” are conjunctions, words that connect one thought to another. If you start a sentence with these words, it would seem you’re not connecting to anything. Right? But the rules seem to have changed since the 1960s. Most experts now seem to agree with Grammerly.com  and the Oxford Dictionaries blog, which basically say that it’s okay to start a sentence with a conjunction in informal or personal writing, not so good in formal writing. What’s formal writing? I see it as academic and legal writing and formal essays. Also, if your boss, editor or teacher says so.

Starting your sentence with “And” or “But” can add emphasis. But it can also just be sloppy writing. In editing my own work, I find myself constantly removing “ands,” both at the beginnings of sentences and in my many lists. Example: Lions and tigers and bears and octupuses, instead of lions, tigers, bears, and octupuses. I also use them a lot to create sentences that are ridiculously long. When I revise, I go back and delete as many of those “ands” as I can, making generous use of periods and commas instead. But sometimes I leave them in because this is how people speak. At least it’s how I speak. Sometimes “ands” and “buts” enhance the voice, rhythm and sense of the sentence. But it can be overdone. I suspect if I removed all the excess “ands” and “buts” in my current manuscript, it would be at least 10 pages shorter.

Don’t worry about any of this when you’re writing your first drafts. Just write; you’ll fix it later. But when you take a second look, consider whether you need those “ands” and “buts,” and would it be better to connect two sentences or divide your words into multiple sentences with periods and capital letters? For example, do I need that “But” in the first sentence of this paragraph? No. I can delete it. I could also put a period after the second “buts” and start a new sentence. But, for emphasis, I will leave it the way it is.

There are other words that do similar jobs, such as yet, however, or, and because. Same rules apply. Use them anywhere you want, but with caution.

I’d love to read your comments on this.

But now, go write.

How do I know when my novel is done?

It was the fifth total revision—I think. I got to the end of my novel, sat back with a sigh, then posted on Facebook that I was finished, ready to share that book with the world. My friends congratulated me. But my critique group was still about 50 pages from the end, and I hadn’t heard their comments yet. We met Tuesday. Bill and Theresa liked it, but wanted a few minor changes. “Tough Shit Dorothy” hated it. HATED it. No, you can’t have your protagonist do that. Wrong, wrong, wrong. The story ends here, not there.

But I was done, wasn’t I? Maybe not. Critiques spread out around my computer, I went into the file and tweaked some things. Better. Maybe now it was done. But my friends’ comments had gotten into my head. Doubts crowded in. Do I need this section at all? Should I cut this? Expand this? Does my main character suffer enough? Dagnabbit, I just sent out my first queries on this book. I’m ready to move on to another project, but maybe I’m not really done. I got so flummoxed I set it aside and went for a walk in the rain.

When you bake a cake, it’s easy to tell when it’s done. If it’s not fully cooked, it will be wet inside, but if it’s ready, you can poke it with a toothpick, and the toothpick comes out clean. You can press it with the tip of your finger, and it bounces back. You could cook it another minute or two, but it might burn, and nobody likes a burnt cake.

So how do you get your book to that place between soggy in the middle and burnt, to where the toothpick comes out clean? I have no magic answers, but I have learned a few things in the course of publishing six other books.

* No book is ready on the first draft. No matter how good a writer you are or how inspired you feel while writing it, you have to go back and revise. Everyone makes mistakes. With a book the length of a novel, you’re bound to find inconsistencies, places where you’ve said too much or too little, and things that need to change in view of discoveries you made along the way. Details and names may have changed. One of my characters is on her fourth name.

* After a while, we authors can’t see our own mistakes. We’ve got to have someone else look at it. We need other people, writers, editors or wise readers–not your spouse or your mother–who can come to the book with clear minds and who don’t know what we’re trying to say, only what we have said.

* If you’re not sure about something, mark it and come back later. Go for a walk, then look at it again. When you cut a section of your book, save it in another file, just in case you change your mind.

* Writing novels is not a race. You do not have to finish in a month or even a year. Perhaps you drafted a book in 30 days  during NaNoWriMo. Bravo. Now take at least twice that much time to revise it. No one can say exactly how many revisions it will take. Revise until it’s no longer soggy in the middle and stop before it gets burnt.

* Sometimes it helps to stop reading fiction by other authors while you revise your own. That way, your story is the only story in your head.

* If you self-publish, you need an editor. Yes, even you.

* Even if a traditional publishing house buys your book, you need to revise and proofread like crazy. Today’s publishers spend less time on editing and proofreading than they used to. Any error in the manuscript is likely to show up in the published book. Be prepared to do some more revising for the agent and editor before the book is finally published.

So is my novel done yet? Almost. I woke up this morning knowing that what I have written is good. The house smells like sugar and vanilla, so we’re getting close. I can’t wait to frost it and serve it up.

Now go write.


Poem Not Right? Write It Again

You non-poets, stick around. This will work for you, too.

I’m not a great reviser of my poetry. I tend to throw lines on a page and consider it done. If it works, it works. But last week a prompt from Poets & Writers gave me a way to make an okay poem much better. The prompt was to take two favorite lines from a poem that needs revision and write a villanelle. Now, a villanelle is a form in which you write five three-line stanzas and end with a four-line stanza. What makes it tricky is that you are supposed to repeat the first line at the end of the second and fourth stanzas and the third line at the end of the third and fifth stanzas, then repeat them both as the last two lines of the ending quatrain. Confused yet? There’s more. The first and third lines of each stanza should rhyme while the second lines all rhyme with each other. Ready to give up? I hear you. For a great explanation and examples of villanelles, click on http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/5796.

But wait, you don’t have to write a villanelle. In this exercise, the villanelle is just a tool, like grabbing a different screwdriver from the toolbox. And you have choices. In my revision, I didn’t do the rhymes, just the repetitions, and I liked what I got. Using the villanelle form forced me to think a little harder about what I was trying to say and to choose lines that said it better. However the repetitions became too . . . repetitious. So . . . I started a whole new poem, using the best of the villanelle, with fewer repetitions, and now I really like my poem. It took a while, I got a little sunburned because I was working out on the deck, but now I get it. Keeping only the best of the poem, cutting and adding until all the lines are good, I think I finally am saying what I was trying to say.

They’re only words, friends, tools to express an idea or a feeling. If the words aren’t quite right, reach into the toolbox for other words. You can always save the rejected lines for another poem. If you insist on keeping only the words from that first blast of inspiration, it’s like trying to tighten the screws on a bookshelf with a flathead screwdriver when what you really need is a Phillips-head. You’ll never get it tight, and it will always wobble.

Now go write.