Questions I Get Asked a Lot (or Wish I Did):

Q: What advice would you have for someone who’s not a strong writer and who wants to do well in English class?

A: I would suggest a variety of exercises targeting both the upper body and lower body. If you can develop strength training regimens that fit into your schedule before and after you complete your writing assignments then you will probably become a very strong writer. Unfortunately, being strong is not a requirement for doing well in English class. It can be helpful in terms of getting girlfriends, however, and romance is a treacherous path filled with heartache. And heartache leads to beautiful poetry and also Taylor Swift songs. So I can see how becoming a strong writer might help you to do well in English class, although to be honest, I would think that becoming a good writer would help a lot more.

Q: What is plagiarism and why do all my teachers think it’s such a big deal?

A: Plagiarism is stealing and stealing, as God says in the Bible, is only wrong if you get caught. So what you want to do is avoid quisling classmates. As William Shakespeare once said, “Bitches be snitches.” Plagiarism has the added benefit of making you sound terribly clever. Imagine how idiotic this answer would be if I had not quoted from Shakespeare and the Holy Bible! [Also misattribution is a type of plagiarism.]

Q: One last quick question: what is grammar? On a related note, how do I do it?

A: “Grammar” is an ancient manuscript etched in the blood of a virgin pigeon. If “Grammar” be read aloud whilst black candles be burnt, a white penguin made of smoke with eyes like razor blades will rise from the chambers of the sea and the muskrat will not see its shadow again until the harvest moon. A secret cabal that eats Cheez-Its in the dank catacombs beneath an antique city in a desert land scribes the “Grammar” and each year they add one more arcane rule. Only the cabal knows its Secrets. And the cabal have sworn eternal silence, else they will be forced to watch a dial-up internet browser load with their eyelids taped open. Only the penitent man will pass a grammar test.

Q: I don’t mean to be rude, but that was not helpful at all. Also, I suspect you made some of that up. But let me try one more time. I am confused about a specific grammar question: When do I use an apostrophe?

A: Ah! Yes, this can be confusing. I will explain. An apostrophe (’) is used to indicate possession. It follows the noun doing the possessing.

Example: The demon’s human husk . . .

Apostrophes never indicate a plural. The confusion comes from “its” vs. “it’s.”

It’s is an abbreviation of it is or it has.

Its means it possesses something.

Example: It’s got claws growing out of its nostrils.

Apostrophes never, ever indicate plurals. I repeat that because perhaps you didn’t get it the first time.

Incorrect:  The demon has been wearing a mullet since the 1980’s.

This apostrophe is incorrect because the 1980s do not own mullets. Chuck Norris owns mullets.

Incorrect: I have many DVD’s.

This apostrophe is incorrect because you should be streaming your content. It is the 2010s, geez.

Q: Okay, that was slightly more helpful. How about the semi-colon? I’ve never figured out the correct usage of a semi-colon.

A: God and the pope do not believe that two independent clauses should lie together outside of the holy bounds of legal punctuation.

This is a clause: She was a succubus.

It kind of sucks, but whatever: it’s still a clause.

This is a list of clauses, separated with periods as God intended: She was a succubus. He was Jabba the Hut. It was a match made in an All-You-Can-Eat Buffet.

Sometimes, however, you want to say two independent clauses very close together, with just a teeny little breathy pause between them—like, say, you were reading aloud a sentence with a comma in it.

You want to say, “She was a succubus, he was Jabba the Hut.”

But you can’t because that is illegal in 49 states and West Virginia will make it illegal as soon as West Virginia figures out what reading is.

So you put a semi-colon between two independent clauses whose semantic content is closely related, like so:

She was a succubus; he was Jabba the Hut. It was a match made in an All-You-Can-Eat Buffet.

And that is perfectly grammatical, at least until you decide you want to start experimenting with colons.

Q: Thank you! That was helpful, although to be honest I am not very interested in grammar. What I really want to know is, how do I get As on English papers?

A: I’m so glad you asked! “A”s are the little key on the farthest left, middle row on your keyboard. If at any point in your life you find yourself asking a teacher this question, you should know that the only As you’re likely to get on your papers are the ones you make by finding that key on your keyboard.

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3 Things People Tell You about Writing that are Wrong

Assiduously avoiding grading my pile of midterms, I instead wander the stacks of my local bookstore like some demented sprite. And while browsing my local Barnes and Noble, I have discovered that approximately 7.39 billion writers have written books on how to write. They probably all give excellent advice. But in the “writing advice for aspiring authors” category, I keep seeing some things that are just—weird. And like tofurkey, they can’t possibly be right. Here are the three rules for writing that are just bizarrely wrong.

  1. If you want to write, read great authors.

Oh! Shots fired. All right, all right. Let the squealing as of the gates of Hades torn asunder and all the devils let loose commence. The Gospel of Writing 101, the Holiest of Creeds, the One True Thing of all writing is that good writers read great writers. Everyone knows this.

Look, I’m not ever going to say that you shouldn’t read great books. Everyone should read great books. But reading a great book doesn’t make you a great writer. And sure, okay, maybe reading great books helps you hone your craft or get inspired—those are very nice things and will come in handy when you’re thinking about beginning to maybe one day write a novel or when you are polishing your manuscript for submission to an agent who’s shown interest. The whole distance in between those two things is going to go a lot better if you have something to write about.

Great writers fly planes or wait tables. Great writers survive giving birth or get lost in a casbah in Morocco. Great writers shoot a rattlesnake in the head after a dinner out with the wife. I don’t know if I want to read the magnum opus of a good writer locked in a room with a computer and a shelf full of the greatest books ever written. But I do want to read the magnum opus of a good writer who shot a rattlesnake in the head.

I mean, you should be reading the great books anyway, just on principle. If you never read anything longer than your Chipotle cup, you’re probably a terrible person.

But if you want to write, go live something worth writing about.

  1. Don’t let rejection get you down; keep revising, keep re-submitting.

True story: lazy writers don’t get published. Well, I mean, E. L. James got published. So there’s that. But more to the point, part of this sage wisdom is solid. Good writers are great revisers.

One of my favorite authors, James Salter, wrote a brilliant little masterpiece called Cassada, which is in fact a completely rewritten—as in, start-to-finish rewritten—version of an earlier, failed novel. In between failing to write Cassada and writing it, he wrote a great deal of other magnificent pieces. Here’s the thing: failing to write Cassada the first time around was how Salter wrote his best work.

And writers get rejected, that’s true enough. But sometimes the best thing to do is take that rejection and internalize it, and just throw the rejected piece away. Delete a whole manuscript. Take the last extant copy of your masterpiece that got rejected seven times, soak it in the cheapest vodka you own, and light a match. If you need to rewrite it, you will—one day, once you’re a better writer and you figure out how to rewrite it. But chances are, you needed to write that piece of shit novel so that you can get rid of that shit novel so that you can go write your real masterpiece. Sometimes rejection is the right answer.

  1. Treat your writing like your day job.

I guess this one depends on how much you love your day job. If your day job is being Hugh Hefner then sure, treat your writing like your day job. If your day job involves showing up at 8:02.58 because if you log in at 8:03 you’re late, and if your day job involves sitting in a cubicle for the next eight hours and if you spend 83% of your workday looking at fat three-toed sloth babies on Buzzfeed, why the hell would it be good advice to take the one thing you love more than anything—writing—and treat it like your day job?

What people mean when they say this, I assume, is that if you want to write, you have to actually park yourself in a chair and write, and not just waft around telling people about that novel you’re one day going to publish. I don’t know. That seems like weird advice to me. Sure, there are some people who say they want to write, they just never find the time. There are some people who want to waft around talking about a novel they might or might not one day write. Let them.

Most writers are people who write because they are writers—in the same way that some people pitch baseballs with their left hands because they’re left-handed. Most writers write because they have to. Because it’s in them like some parasitic creature clinging to the inside of their ribcage or hunkered inside their skull. Because they can’t help it. Should you schedule writing? If you want to. Sure. Go for it. But, I mean, come on. If you hate your day job and writing is your passion? Then leave the clock punching for the day job and break out the gin and the jazz and the joy when you write.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s a Tanqueray with my name on it and a blank document that won’t scribble itself.