Grammar & Style: A Book Story

A few weeks before the start of spring semester this year, the department asked if I could rearrange my schedule to accommodate a mid-afternoon course on grammar and style. Partly because I’m a nice person who likes to be helpful but mostly because I’m a confessed grammar nerd who was geeking out at the opportunity, I said yes.


But it didn’t leave me much time to plan the syllabus, and the first decision was the most crucial: what text to use.

A colleague had mentioned Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style to me months before, so I pulled it off my shelf along with a couple of textbooks and hurried to weigh out the pros and cons of each.

The awful truth about most grammar textbooks is that they try to teach style without much flair. Technical definitions and lifeless examples are more soporific than inspiring. Some creep toward being interesting by dissecting sentences from famous writers, but the analysis is usually dry. I’ve even heard a textbook author admit this, blaming the approval process for sucking all humor and vulnerability out of the prose.

Pinker doesn’t believe in trite sentences. He believes, like I do, that to teach someone how to write, you better write well enough to show them what good writing looks like.

My gut said Pinker was the way to go. Read more


“To Kindle a Light of Meaning”

When seventeen people—human beings with names and lives and futures—were killed in Florida on Wednesday, I was writing a draft of a blog post about pain. I stopped, knowing it would take days of perspective to sort out my thoughts in this horrible new context.

braving the wildernessPain brings everything else to a halt, most of all when it’s sudden and violent. I think of Brené Brown’s description in Braving the Wilderness of drivers in Houston pulling over when Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated on re-entry. I think of lyrics from Les Misérables after the young revolutionaries are slaughtered: “There’s a grief that can’t be spoken.” There isn’t anything we can say or do, so we stop, helpless.

I believe that’s how humans were created to function. Grief strikes us down because we are meant to feel that torture and use it to reassess our lives and choose a better course. Read more

A Decade? Embarrassing Timeline Confessions of a Part-time Novel Writer

My manuscript is done. It’s a thrilling thing to say—not only that I finished a draft, but that all 100,000 words are what I want them to be (for now, until I revise with an agent and editor) and ready to send off. You’d think I’d be shouting this to the hilltops!

But I worry that after ten years no one will believe me. Even my poor husband probably says “That’s great!” just to humor me. Other people ask, “Wait, is this still your Peter Pan novel?” Still.

I’ve wondered myself why it took so long. I wrote my first full novel during grad school in only a year; how did a second novel take ten? True, that first novel was not so great and has deservedly stayed on a shelf, but come on: Nikki, what in all the vast cosmos have you been doing for the past decade? So I dug into old files and blog posts, looking for word counts and date stamps that would piece together the mystery. Read more

Memes, Movies & Memorability

A year ago I had the fun opportunity to write three articles for the English Department at Salt Lake Community College, where I teach. Last month those articles finally went live, and I wanted to share about them here because I’m thrilled with how they turned out. Click the article titles if you’re interested in reading them for yourself.

“Punctuation, Memes & Choice”

punctuation is powerful

As any of my former or current students could attest, I’m a big fan of punctuation. So when I teach it, I try my best to help students catch on to its power. In this article I felt like I succeeded, thanks to a colleague’s suggestion to use memes. The humor they provide enlivens the whole topic. Even better has been hearing responses from students who read this article and say, “Wow! All of that makes sense now!” Read more

On Icebergs, Novel Writing and Journaling

Tip of the Iceberg
Tip of the Iceberg — Image by © Ralph A. Clevenger/CORBIS

It’s a metaphor that gets used a lot, but I’m going to make an embarrassing confession about its application to novel writing: for the longest time, I didn’t get it.

See, I had approached writing a novel like so:

  1. Think of an idea
  2. Start writing chapter 1
  3. Keep writing until you hit “the end”
  4. Go back and revise a million times until it works

Was the underside of the iceberg just all the stuff I cut from each draft? I honestly didn’t give it too much thought. I know every writer crafts differently, so I figured this was one of those things that other writers did and maybe it didn’t apply to my process.

Or maybe, in hindsight, I didn’t have enough process yet. Read more

Three Steps to Complex Characters (Part III)

You can tell a lot about a person from the obvious pieces we’ve discussed in the last two posts: their features and their name. Even without knowing energy types we could probably identify apple cheeks as fun, puppy-dog eyes as sensitive, sharp chins as determined, and long faces as serious. Similarly, we make natural judgments about a name that are often true.

(One beta reader commented, after learning my artsy character Phil is short for Theophilus, “I was a little surprised that he goes by Phil as opposed to Theo. Theo sounds artistic, but Phil sounds kind of carefree/humorous which also seems to fit him.” Later, when she learned Wendy had been the one who insisted on calling him Phil, the reader said it made perfect sense.)

Today we get to dive deeper—into the invisible influence of astrology.

Character Sun Sign

Read more