Unlock the Muse – March 14, 2018

The second week of March, and spring is definitely making an appearance. The trees are blooming, the robins have reappeared and the time has changed. If you don’t participate in Daylight Savings Time, count your blessings. This one always seems particularly hard on the kiddos. Which means it’s tough on parents.

Your writing exercise for this week is:

Try writing a conversational piece mimicking the dialect of a given region.

Writing dialect can be tricky. But I challenge you to use the exercise to deepen your understanding of language and dialogue. Be excessive in adding southern twang to your fictional conversations. Pepper your dialogue with foreign phrases. Read your passages aloud and see what effect this has on your writing. Is it still readable? Most likely not. Now, dial it back a bit. Or a lot, if need be. Recognize the power of a simple suggestion in adding local flavor to your dialogue.

Need more of a challenge? Try mimicking the conversational style of your child’s favorite cartoon. Or your partner’s favorite sportscaster or news anchor. Eavesdrop on people talking in your local coffee shop and attempt to recreate the tiniest nuances of the conversation.

Keep in mind, this is an exercise, and not necessarily intended to be used in writing fiction. The Strunk & White, The Elements of Style guide has this to say on the subject of dialect:

Do not attempt to use dialect unless you are a devoted student of the tongue you hope to reproduce. If you use dialect, be consistent.

I have finally begun reading through Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg. This is actually a re-read for me, as this book was required reading for one of my college writing courses. This book is a treasure trove of succinct bits of writing advice. I’m not entirely sure where to begin. Perhaps with this line from the essay titled “Tap the Water Table,”

We learn writing by doing it. That simple. We don’t learn by going outside ourselves to authorities we think know about it.

This is great advice. And so simple. The best way to improve your writing is to write more. As such, I’ve decided I need to take up another bit of Goldberg’s advice, and start writing in notebooks again. She has the personal goal of filling a notebook every month. This seems a reasonable goal, and quite doable. If you don’t already have a supply on hand, go out and get yourself a good pen and blank notebook. Let’s begin filling the pages with observations, inspirations and, when necessary, complete nonsense.

This week’s sticky grammar issue is the split infinitive. What exactly is a split infinitive? This is when an infinitive is separated from the “to” that goes with it, usually by an adverb. For example, to diligently inquire vs. to inquire diligently. According to William Strunk and E. B. White in The Elements of Style,

There is precedent from the fourteenth century down for interposing an adverb between to and the infinitive it governs, but the construction should be avoided unless the writer wishes to place unusual stress on the adverb.

Consider the phrase, to boldly go where no one has gone before. To turn that around would sound strange. Sometimes emphasizing the adverb is preferable. On the other hand, is the adverb really necessary at all? Is there a way to modify the action without using an adverb, a stronger, more precise verb perhaps?

Happy writing!

Please consider sharing your response to the writing exercise. Got a question? Just ask! Put it in the comments below, or send your question by email here:

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