Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Syntax and Snakes

     When I’m not removing snakes from my yard or sleeping I’m critiquing children’s and young adult manuscripts, written by adults, of course. I can tell from reading the first page of the manuscript how much I’m going to enjoy the rest of it. These manuscripts range from five or six pages to over three hundred. 
     Often my bright little brown eyes sparkle as I eagerly turn the pages; often my little lids droop, I shake my gray-haired head, and I go outside and chase snakes to regain my alertness. Once I chased a snake with my lawn mower, but that’s a story for later.
     Here’s a few critiquing finds that make me cringe:
     1. Writing the same thing too many different ways: “Mary, you worry too much. You let the littlest things that don’t mean anything get under your skin. If you fret and lose sleep over useless stuff you won’t have any time left to think about important things.”  Stop! Once is enough!
     2. The character falls to “the ground” inside a house. The ground? Is the character in a hut with a dirt floor? No? Then it’s floor, carpet, linoleum, rug, but not the ground, please. Unless, maybe, the character falls down in the square of dirt where the pet poops. I think I that’s called a litter box.
     3.“Well” and “just”. In some manuscripts “well” begins sentences, connects phrases, ends sentences, is an aside, or is an expression used to make the character’s language seem “folksy.” NOT!  In my style book “just” means “merely” or “only” or refers to time (just now, just then, now just a gall-dern minute, Mister!). No more than one “just” per page, thank you.
     4. One and two page chapters. One manuscript I read had 50 chapters and barely one hundred pages. I felt like I was being jerked  from one scene to another.
     5.  A double-spaced gap between each double-spaced paragraph that makes the manuscript seem longer than it really is.
     6. No headers or page numbers. Once I read a 200-page manuscript with no page numbers. I knew it had 200 pages because I had to number each page myself.  Imagine dropping a thick sheaf of papers  with no page numbers.
     Enough! My hands are shaking. I stagger outside to catch a fresh breeze and check my hydrangea bushes for blooms. A foot-long gray stick is drooped over one branch.
     My eyes narrow.  That’s not a stick. That’s a snake lounging in my hydrangea plant! I drop my pencil. Where’s my hoe??


  1. Well I just like to use 'well' and 'just' just about every whipstitch. Yee-haw! Actually I had to turn the search feature loose to remove those words from one MS and ended up cutting it by half. They are my kryptonite.

    What kinds of snakes do you have that necessitates chasing them with a lawnmower??

  2. Hi Melinda. One summer when I lived along the coast I was cutting grass and spied a large (three foot plus or so) black and grey speckled snake in the front yard, much too near the porch. When I stamped my foot it didn't budge. Finally I started after it with the lawn mower and it finally moved. I kept the lawn mower after it until it finally dropped down into a ditch.

  3. Because I like to identify things by species, which one of these was it? http://www.auburn.edu/academic/science_math/cosam/collections/reptiles_amphibians/backyard/lizards/snakes/

    FYI, kingsnakes will kill and eat venomous snakes, so you might want to keep those around the house.

    I know, I'm a nut. :)

  4. Melinda, this is beginning to have the appearance of a promising non-fiction piece. Maybe we can collaborate! SSSSSSSSS!

  5. ha! I can get behind that! Send me your cold-hardy snakes and we'll go from there.