Learn Writing with Uncle Jim, Volume 1

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I, for one, find your wit to be quite charming.

No need to hide in the woodwork. You have much to offer.

A lurker, such as myself, enjoy your posts.
Others as well...i'm sure. :)


Re: Yes, please let us move on--

I think that's a super-majority. Hi, Mandaric! Glad you could join us. Your instincts are good ones!

All grammar freaks out there, I may be starting my own board so you can continue to your heart's content away from this site your niggedly discussion of small, meaningless topics while starving children in India die. But please save up all your words of word-rage, including reactions to this post, for that eventuality. And please do not, do not clutter this thread with more observations, whether palpably inapt ones or not. It is a heinousness, sirrah -- an abomination! -- to inflict grammar essays, wrong or right, on clearly distinterested people.

I do this not because I like talking about grammar any more than before -- I do not -- but simply for the money. I've no other means of support while writing my latest, and could be evicted any time. Also, I am good at this (that being, inspiring controversy), and there may be enough people interested in the lingual proclitvities of baboons to pay my way. I doubt it, but I can't pump gas. Only Reph gets in free.

The beauty and the purity of the language is only important to the readers of language and the world soul, but writing about the rules needed to get there is high on my lists of ways to write badly. Talk about your Positional Chess gone amok.

The only conditions will be to respect others and not to let those discussions spill over into this site.

We are pretty much done with this latest episode but perhaps that offer will help weed out further dismal submissions from those who just love to talk about the language, instead of using it.

Oh yeah -- you see how pernicious this crap can be? The reason "and then" is ungrammatical is the lack of required commas inserted thusly -- "and, then," ... which frame the parenthetical time element from the conjunctive and clarify the meaning. We all missed that! Since grammar is only the handmaiden of meaning, as expressed in the one rule from Strunk cited in this whole darn thing, reference to the rules themselves can be handy before flying off into speculation. The real camp robbers, as On implies, can be grammarians just as much as their antagonists. I will consider "it" an act of terrorism to respond to this paragraph on this thread.

My own copies of S&W and the Chicago Manual may be around here somewhere, having been packed away, or not -- they may be lost -- :hat but on the new thread you will be expected to support your opinions technically, not just with nice phrases.

Now, at last, I'm leaving, and I could not have picked a more opportune time to do so.


Re: Uhh...

Oh, Reph, I thought you were! Now I'll have to reconsider getting sweet on you. You'll note I offered you free admission in my other post.

But seriously, I can't avoid the colorful phrase now and then. I apologize for offending you and can say I really didn't mean it that way. See you ... and keep the faith. :hat


Re: Uhh...

Reph, you will also note that the first one I accused of being hide-bound was myself, several posts ago. I was going to use myself as the subject of that hide-bound sentence, but decided to use you not as an insult, but an honorific. Still, I have noticed that everything I do is wrong. So, again, sorry.

Hope I see more of you later, assuming they let me back in here.

And Jerry, thanks for your immensely witty comment. !

James D Macdonald

Happy New Year

Here's to a happy, healthy, and productive new year.


Re: And Then

My mother is an English teacher. This is the conversation we just had.

Me: "Mom, is this gramatically correct? She typed 'Chapter One' [comma] then looked out the window."

English Teacher Mother: "Yes."

(I wrote out comma because I said the word when telling her the sentence.)

James D Macdonald

Lime Pie

Here's the recipe for the best lime pie in the world:

Pie Shell:

Whites of 3 large fresh eggs, at room temperature
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/8 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup sugar

Heat oven to 300 F. Lightly grease a 9" pie plate.

Beat egg whites in a medium bowl on medium speed until frothy.

Add cream of tartar and salt and beat on high speed until soft peaks form when beaters are lifted.

Beat in 1/4 cup of the sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, until blended.

With mixer on low speed, sprinkle on remaining sugar and beat until blended.

Spread meringue over bottom and sides of prepared dish.

Bake until lightly browned, about 45 minutes.

Cool in dish on wire rack.

Pie filling:

6 egg yolks, slightly beaten
1/3 cup lime juice
2 and 1/2 Tablespoons grated lime rind
1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 Tablespoons cold water
6 egg whites
1/8 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 cup granulated sugar

Beat egg yolks until thick and lemon-colored.

Add lime juice, rind, sugar, and salt, then beat mixture until throughly blended.

Cook this mixture in a double-boiler until very thick, stirring constantly.

Now add the cold water to the egg whites and beat until stiff but not dry.

Combine baking powder and remaining 1/4 cup sugar and add to beaten egg white mixture. Beat until stiff.

Fold hot lime mixture into half the egg white meringue; fill pre-baked pieshell.

Cover with remaining meringue.

Sprinkle lightly with sugar and bake 15 minutes in a moderately slow oven (325 F) or until meringue is delicately brown.

Serve cold.


This, O dearly beloved, is a short story.


You craft it as carefully as you can, using all your experience and skill. You use the finest ingredients, all in just proportion. At the end it looks perfect to your eye. You cool it for a day; you bring it forth to serve to your guests. But you don't know, not until you take the first slice, whether the inside jelled or if you have some runny lime-flavored egg soup.

At that point you can't go back and remake the pie. Either it works or it doesn't.

Your guests may exclaim over how good it tastes, but they won't look forward to pie next time they come to your house.

True, you can guarantee your results a bit by using potato starch or gelatin. Neither of those produces the texture and mouth-feel that you want. Practice will help, as you learn by experience what thick, very thick, soft peaks, and "but not dry" mean. Yet you'll never be sure, until you take that first slice in front of your guests, that it really worked.

In the same way, a short story either works or it doesn't. Once prepared, using all your skill, you can't go back and revise it into something that isn't lime-flavored runny glop.

Nothing at all will help if your guests don't like lime pie to start with. Some may even be allergic to eggs, or have ethical or moral issues with egg use.


A novel is different. A novel is a wooden crate. If the crate doesn't work, you can take the boards, rearrange them, and try again. You can fill the old nail holes with Plastic Wood. You can go get more wood at the lumber yard to replace a board that isn't working out, or to fill an opening that you didn't intend. Once it's all banged into shape, then you can sand it, stain it, varnish it, put on brass handles and corners, and hang a pretty padlock from the hasp.

People who take your crate can put any number of things into it, and if some of them don't use the crate for storage, they might use it as a coffee table or a place to put a nice lamp.

Novels you can revise. First make the shape, then smooth and refine, then show to your friends.

More on this anon.


Re: And, then, reality came knocking on the door.

Okay. One more time.

Reph, who is otherwise correct, misses the "and" meaning of the conjunctive "," in denying the correctitude of the ", then" construction. Whether this is sufficient to validate the construction is open to question. It is otherwise, as I say elsewhere, an incomplete run-on sentence. The use of the second phrase as a subordinate descriptor for which "then" could conceivably be appropriate is negatoried by the clausal characteristics of the second part of the construction. A tip of the hat, most respectfully, to your mother the English teacher on this first day of days, but we are not going to solve the grammatical legitimacy of the naked "and then" anytime soon. BTW no one appeared to notice the "and then" I slipped into one of my recent discussions. It was a land mine I and suppose I should be grateful that no one stepped on it because of the world's opprobrium for such messy and indiscriminate devices.

I was in a way embarrassed that I'd dominated the discussion so much, particularly with the guy who appeared not to recognize that I was right and he was wrong about something, claiming I was pussyfooting around the issue somehow by saying "I'm right, and you're wrong," and who demanded equal time for his wrongness. I am sorry if I do not suffer fools gladly, I'll try to be better in the future.

To compensate, I did what I could to try to return the discussion to real things with various devices. And, then, nevertheless, Jim, bulldog as he is, undermined my efforts by ploughing into the New Year with his comment baldly repeating the attitude that got us in this mess to begin with. I mean, the nerve! This is not quite so sinful as the camp robber who, despite my warnings, blithely brought the topic up again for no good reason, just because he could. Call Tom Ridge!

Jim can be forgiven this time because he does not qualify the reasons for his objection. He is correct that the naked "and then" is just plain wrong as a matter of word choice in prose, but all the arguments have been made and all the positions drawn, then distinctions drawn, but I think we need not re-hash the things we've already said, whether good or ill.

May this be our best year, and may we deserve it. :hat


Re: Lime Pie

Many thanks for, as promised, your key lime pie recipe, Jim. Your discussion is beautiful and instructive. I will work on both when I return to the land of the living, and do my dishes -- two distinct challenges! I apologize to the world for further offending its sensibilities in my last post, and I welcome with huzzahs your return to key lime-itude!



Of Pies and Boxes

I really love all of the analogies that you come up with. They give shape to what would otherwise be abstract concepts.

I was wanting to ask you something that the pie analogy made me think of. A lot of times, my plot ideas are amorphous, gooey blobs. Is there any real way that helps to turn a blob of goo plot into something apealing?

Oh, and I also wanted to thank you for making this topic and taking the time to help out all of the beginning writers on this message board.

I've heard a lot of horror stories about authors who are stuck up jerks who think the world revolves around them, but you and all of the other published authors on this board have proven to be very good, kind people.


Re: Short Story like a Lime Pie

How can this be? What could possibly prevent a person from applying all his skill to a short story and when he discovers by whatever means that it doesn't work, going back and reworking it to make it a good story. If I were God, I could even make a failed lime pie good. As a writer, we are the God's of words. How can we be unable to fix anything we wish?


Re: Short Story like a Lime Pie

Have you ever written a short story JP? The analogy James cited is correct.

You could theoretically start a whole new story with the same premise as the failed one, but that's pretty much all you can do once the words are on paper-- it either hits or misses. And most often you won't even be able to do that much-- frequently the premise also stinks.


Qatz: Your services as historian of this thread are greatly appreciated. If at any point it becomes necessary to determine who said what, who owed who an apology, and who was wrong about grammar, you analyses will surely prove invaluable.


James D Macdonald

Re: Short Story like a Lime Pie

All that you can do with a failed short story is write a new short story. The new story will be a completely new one, for all that it may resemble the other (both are made of limes and eggs and sugar).

With a failed crate, you can still take it apart and reassemble it into a new crate, and most of the lumber will be the same physical lumber (though the new crate may not resemble the old crate at all, except in its crateness).


If Our Lord Himself couldn't explain the Kingdom of Heaven except by parables, how am I, a mere man, to explain writing?

(Matthew 13 xxiv-xxxiii, if you're interested.)

James D Macdonald


A short story is a single joke. A novel is a comedy routine.

James D Macdonald

Re: Jokes

There was a lumber camp far up in the hills in Vermont. All winter long the lumberjacks would cut trees, then in the spring drive them down the rivers to the sawmills in the towns below the notches.

One day a stranger came to one particular camp, and was invited in to share the men's evening meal. The air was warm inside, filled with the smells of delicious food and strong coffee. And as the evening progressed, one of the men shouted out "Fifty-seven!" and everyone laughed.

Then another man shouted out, "Twenty-two!" to great laughter and applause, another shouted "One hundred sixty-eight!" and everyone laughed even harder.

The stranger turned to the man seated beside him and asked, "What's going on? Why are the men laughing at those numbers?"

"We've all been up here so long," replied the lumberjack, "that we've all heard each others' jokes. So to save time, we gave them all numbers. Instead of telling the joke, we just say the number."

At that moment, someone shouted out "Two hundred eighty-nine!" and everyone laughed harder than ever. Men were slapping their thighs; tears were streaming down their faces.

"What happened?" asked the stranger.

"Oh," said the lumberjack, "That was a new one."

"Gee," said the stranger, "Can I try?"


The stranger stood up and shouted "Ninety-one!"

Silence. Everyone just looked at him.

The stranger's face turned red, he sat back down, and turned to his companion. "What happened?" he asked. "Why didn't anyone laugh?"

"It's okay," said the lumberjack. "Some people just can't tell jokes."


short story

It can also be seen as--a short story doesn't have any extra words--each one has to be carefully chosen, there isn't much room to move them or change them. So once you hit hte end--there is not much to play with.

A novel you have many more words to play with, you can add, change and take away.



Re: Jokes

I don't believe you will ever get it through my thick skull. If I tell a joke and it flops, then (not "and then") I learn how to tell it right. It then works yet it is the same joke.
I did my best to create and rewrite to death a short story and when it was read and critiqued, it wasn't as good as I thought. I reworked the story and came up with a few brilliant ideas (with the help of a fellow writer) and it turned out to be a story my readers loved. Yet, it was the same basic story - not a new story.
If what you say is true, then either I have a new story or I didn't do it as well as I could the first time whether I thought so or not.


Re: Short Story like a Lime Pie

My premise never stinks. I wipe after every use.



My Brother explains it much the same way.

He told me that in a crowd, I am the funniest person he knows. I have quick wit and a seemingly endless source of imagination and material. He tells me these nice things.

Then he says, “But as a comedian, you suck. You can’t present a joke, you have no flow and you can’t segue your way around subjects and events.”

It’s true. Put me in a crowd and I am a one-liner Gatling gun. Put me on stage and I bomb.

That’s the difference of being funny and being a professional Comedian. It looks like it is a lot like writing.

That’s why I refer to myself as a storyteller not a writer. That will only change if I decide to be a writer. I have not taken that leap.

So I just lurk and harass everyone.


James D Macdonald

Re: Short Story like a Lime Pie

Any analogy can be pressed too far.

Part of learning how to make this pie is learning what "until very thick" means. If it happens you get it wrong, you try again. The pie you have then isn't the same as the one that didn't work ... because this time you stirred until very thick.


Re: Jokes

Jerry, I know not what James may say, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death.

Something like that last, mostly immortal, sentence, a short story is a short, crystalline piece of prose. The conclusion makes sense only in the context of the beginning, and a crucial if complex step taken somewhere along the way -- in maybe the space of just a few words -- to expand that context into a clarity, helped along by very disciplined prose. In a good short story, as with poesy itself bordering on prose, every word counts.

In Moby Dick, you will find the occasional word that does not count. At last report, there were two. But a novel is, as Jim very aptly says, a large space for the fictional development of color and concept. It is a space, whereas the short story is not. The short story, like the poem it tries but usually fails to emulate, is a concrete piece of art, a carved piece -- an Aleutian bear carving in fact -- or a miniature painting, all of a piece in itself, not a big hall of mirrors reflecting vast emotions. Lara in "Dr. Z" being an exemplar of the latter. When you started your first failed short you did not have the piece; the piece was everything, and you did not have it. When you got it right the second time, it was only because the piece came together for you, not because you scotch-taped the two parts of the sculpture together, but because you finally got the carving right. It may have seemed similar to the first, but it was not the same piece. It couldn't have been.

Oh, by the way, to whomever it was that lauded my history of the thread, thank you for your kudos, but that piece was not historical -- it was a devious and so far undetected way of using the two remaining disputed word constructions in dignified prose that few if any people would challenge. Hah! Back to you, James.

Oh, and this .......... "78."
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