Wednesday, June 30, 2010

SQUIDS 101: Punctuation: Colons


The colon. It can join two independent clauses as a semicolon does; it can link an independent and a related dependent clause as a comma or emdash do; or it can be used to introduce a list in which the items are separated by commas or semicolons. It is our house style (following the Chicago Manual, I believe) that complete sentences that follow a colon are to begin with a capped letter. Fragments or lists after the colon should begin with a lowercase letter.
The squid stared at me in surprise: It had evidently never seen a scuba diver shoot ink back at it before.

The squid opened its luminescent eyes: vast orbs glowing like Chinese lanterns.

Contact lenses for squids are available in the following colors: chartreuse, periwinkle, lilac, rose, and burnt sienna.
I hear the pause after a colon as longer than the pause after a semicolon because there should be two spaces after the mark as opposed to one (and the greater the space accorded to anything in a story, the greater the weight it has), and because the cap at the start of a new sentence carries its own weight.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

A Little Roundup Pre-ALA

Much fun stuff happening lately! To wit:

If you're going to be at ALA Annual in Washington this weekend, come to my lovely authors' book signings! All take place in the Scholastic booth, #2624 (or, what's easier to find: under the gigantic red Scholastic banner that will be looming over all our heads).

I personally will be flitting about the convention from Friday evening, when I'm attending the awesome Kidlit Drink Night that Sara and her Mid-Atlantic SCBWI peeps are hosting, through Tuesday afternoon, when Francisco receives the Schneider Family Book Award for Marcelo. (Yay, Francisco!) If you see me, please say hi!

If you'll be in New York over the weekend instead of Washington, I recommend the "Notes from the Underground" play festival at the American Theatre of Actors, including a one-act directed by my own dear boyfriend, James Monohan -- "Bastard," by K. Alexa Mavromatis, which despite its blunt title actually has the feel of a good YA novel. It has two more performances, Friday and Saturday.

Anyone interested in plot structure: This Jennifer Crusie post is a must-read. Other things I've been reading lately: All five volumes of the Scott Pilgrim series, which were huge fun and have me eagerly anticipating both the sixth book and the movie (click here to see my avatar (winter edition) and make your own); A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin, which I found annoyingly interesting and compelling; and Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin, which was a perfect, calming, pleasingly round read before bedtime.

Arthur has started a blog.

Emily and I have decided that we don't get out of the office enough and explore our lunch options in Soho, so we're making it a summer project to go out one day a week. And thus far the experiment has been a roaring success, because I recently had the best sandwich I have ever eaten in my life -- "the Korean," with bulgogi-marinated steak, lettuce, and slaw, on Cuban bread with sesame oil -- at a place called Project Sandwich. Be still, my carnivorous heart. Any other suggestions for great Soho lunch places or excellent New York sandwiches are hereby welcomed.

Monday, June 21, 2010

SQUIDS 101: Punctuation: Semicolons

(This series explained in a previous post here; some nice official rules on semis here.)


Semicolons are stronger and heavier than commas, and as such, they create a slightly longer or more significant pause. The semicolon joins two independent clauses, usually on the same topic or thought. I frequently use them to join two independent clauses that are already joined by a conjunction, when I want the longer pause of a semi plus the aural smoothness of a conjunction; I have always thought this was technically wrong, but the rule list linked above assured me that this is acceptable so long as there is a comma in the first independent clause. (And considering the length of the sentences I write, there usually is!) These examples are apparently both correct:
Serendipitously, the squid surfed into sight at that second; startled, it squirted away.

Serendipitously, the squid surfed into sight at that second; but Sir Septimus screamed, and it squirted away.
If you are making a list in which the list items themselves contain commas, then the list items should be divided by semicolons as follows:
The squid ate five sardines; six mussels, which he found rather hard to open; seven anemones, sans clownfish; and a Boston cream pie.
Perhaps because they're used in so much eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English literature, I often think of semicolons as a little bit formal or fussy; they're the maiden aunt of punctuation, as opposed to the boldness of a dash or the unobtrusiveness of a comma. But like many maiden aunts, they are wonderfully useful at keeping many unruly things in line, be they ideas, clauses, or commas. Indeed, because they're so good at neatly delineating multiple similar items within a sentence, I also feel like semicolons signal complexity; when used correctly, their presence in your prose says that you know how to present and manage all these items competing for the reader's attention -- that you have things under control.

Finally, Semikolon is an excellent German paper-goods company, should you be a stationery hound like I am.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Becoming Argentina

The World Cup has put me in mind of one of my favorite passages from any book our imprint has published -- the following letter from Seb, an exuberant, soccer-obsessed teenage boy in Australia, writing to Lydia, a student at rival Ashbury High, after he asked her to get him out of an exam:

Dear Lydia,


How did you even know what kind of car he drives? You rock. You’re a classic. You’re as beautiful as a Beckham free kick and as wicked as a Maradona header. I’m thinking about taking off my shirt and sending it to you. I’m that in love with you.

You realize that’s THREE challenges you have succeeded in without a single thing going wrong?

You know what you are?

You are Argentina.

In particular, I’m thinking of the fact that Argentina beat Japan, Jamaica, and Croatia without conceding a single goal in the first three games of the World Cup in 1998.

This time you have to let me take you out to say thank you. I’m not accepting a no.

Your No. 1 Fan
This is from Jaclyn Moriarty's utterly delightful The Year of Secret Assignments, and because of this passage, we occasionally use "You are Argentina" in the office as our highest form of praise. We just rejacketed it, at the same time we put out our third Ashbury book with Jaci, and this new cover for the book is Argentina:

As is the cover for said third book, The Ghosts of Ashbury High, which completes Lydia and Seb's story:

The other Ashbury books are Feeling Sorry for Celia and The Murder of Bindy Mackenzie, and they are all four hilarious, romantic, original in form, thoughtful in execution, with real depth and pain to their characters, and real pleasure in their storytelling. You won't find a better thing to read on the beach this year.

End of bubbly (but sincere) testimonial.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

SQUIDS 101: Punctuation: Commas

The following material is taken from my book, which is in its last editing stages, glory hallelujah. I'll probably post the rest of my goofy guide to punctuation over time.

Another ENEMY to sentence rhythm: the wrong punctuation. I am obsessed with punctuation because I am a very aural editor, and punctuation is (or should be) the writer's primary means of registering the tones and pauses in a dramatic scene. Pauses have drama, and too many pauses can make too much drama, but too few might make a reader miss some crucial information as the flow of words can overwhelm the facts within. Altogether, I agree with this wonderful quotation from Isaac Babel: “No steel can pierce the heart of man as icily as a full stop placed at the right moment.”

This, then, is the highly idiosyncratic Cheryl Klein Guide to Punctuation -- by no means a definitive guide to punctuation -- with the various marks analyzed in ascending order of their pause length and therefore drama. (The examples all involve squids for the lone reason that “squid” is a funny word.) If you would like a more serious guide to punctuation with clear and official rules of use, I suggest checking out


The lowly hardworking comma. It creates the briefest pause, used to establish a quick hitch in the flow of speech for either organizational or dramatic purposes. While every house or copyeditor has its own rules on how to use commas, I generally try to abide by the taste of the author and the point of the writing in question. For instance, technically, both of these sentences are correct:
I, personally, prefer the elegance of the glass squid to the asymmetry of the cock-eyed squid.

I personally prefer the elegance of the glass squid to the asymmetry of the cock-eyed squid.
The point of a sentence like this is not just to convey information about squid preferences, but to show the personality of the speaker. A very sententious, arrogant, or dramatic speaker might want those pauses around “personally” to emphasize that these are his personal tastes, and as such, you know, they’re not that important—at the same time implying that, because they’re his tastes, you might want to pay attention. A less sententious speaker might not want those pauses so the sentence flows faster and reads more smoothly (indeed, a speaker not wanting to draw attention to himself might delete the adverb altogether). Thus, depending on how much the writer and editor wanted to emphasize the speaker’s self-importance, those commas might be left in or taken away.

Because commas create pauses, a good rule of thumb is: The faster the action should move in a sentence or a scene, the fewer commas-of-choice you should have. Consider these two sentences:
The squid, furious, lashed out with six tentacles, grasping Martha about the neck.

The furious squid lashed out with six tentacles and grasped Martha about the neck.
Removing the commas-of-choice around the appositive "furious" and moving it back to become a preceding adjective makes the opening of the sentence move much more quickly, as the reader doesn't have to pause for the appositive. The additional value of "grasping" with comma vs. "and grasped" without is debatable, as I think long sentences without some pause actually get harder to read; but that may be because I'm just so much an aural reader that I want breathing spaces even in printed prose.

Of course, you can also use pauses to drag things out. In The Hunger Games example [that I quote in the book before this excerpt], the parallelism and many commas of “I will stare her down, I will not cry out, I will die, in my own small way, undefeated” hold the reader in suspense for the moment the knife will touch Katniss and cause her death, putting us on that same knife-edge.

Commas are also used to separate and organize items in a list:
The squid, ravenous, ate five sardines, six mussels, seven anemones, and a Boston cream pie.
That comma before the “and” here is known as the serial comma. Again, style varies from house to house and author to author, but I like having a comma before the “and” for maximum clarity. The writer and grammarian Martha Brockenbrough once tweeted this possibly apocryphal example of a book dedication: ‘To my parents, God and Ayn Rand.’” One hopes very much that a serial comma would have proved useful.

Sunday, June 06, 2010


On Tuesday, Arthur A. Levine Books published I Now Pronounce You Someone Else, the debut novel from writer Erin McCahan, edited by moi. I'll let this week's terrific Publishers Weekly review speak to the story:

Offering sharp wit and plenty of romantic interludes, first-time author McCahan captures the excitement and panic of a teenage girl on the fast track to becoming Mrs. Somebody. Seventeen-year-old Bronwen Oliver doesn't feel like she belongs in her family (she entertains escapist fantasies in which she discovers she was switched at birth and is really "Phoebe Lilywhite"). . . . When an old acquaintance, Jared, re-enters Bronwen's life and sweeps her off her feet, Bronwen thinks she's finally found someone to whom she can relate. And she's soon confident that she fits into Jared's world better than she fits into her own. On her 18th birthday, Jared presents her with an engagement ring. After readily accepting his proposal, Bronwen is on cloud nine until realities about potential married life bring her crashing back down. Told in lively first-person narrative, this intelligent romance teaches a hard but relevant lesson about living dreams and letting them go.
And that's exactly right -- it's an excellently Austenian romance full of moral development and funny observations, particularly about Bronwen's deeply, um, "eccentric" family. It's also a wonderfully Midwestern book, being set in suburban Michigan and focusing on marriage, which is not a subject that comes up much in coastal-set fiction for YA. (Which is one reason why I was so delighted by it -- my suburban Midwestern roots showing.) Erin answered some questions this week over e-mail:

Tell me about the first book you ever wrote.
In elementary school, I wrote a novel – in pencil, in spiral notebooks – about my stuffed animals coming to life at night. I, of course, was the heroine of the novel, and, in it, I followed my stuffed animals one night down the clothes chute, which wasn’t a clothes chute but a portal to a different land consisting of a number of kingdoms inhabited mostly by fairies and wee folk who were forever on the verge of being overthrown by evil fairies. Naturally, I stayed to help these kingdoms defeat the evil fairies by uniting all the good people into one empire, and in the end they thanked me by making me a princess and giving me my own waterfall.

I think I read a paranormal romance with that same plot last year. What is your writing process like? For me, it’s like framing the canvas before painting the picture. I know where to start and where to end. I have a general idea of what the thing will look like, but it always changes along the way.

Are you a planner, or a seat-of-your-pantser? Do you revise as you go along, or only after you've done a huge chunk? Some of the best writing advice I ever got came from my creative writing professor at Hope College who said, “Never write with the intention that you will go back and revise later. Understand there will always be revisions, but they will be easier if you make every effort your best effort.” This very often results in my working on one particular scene for days and days and, occasionally, days.

You spent some time working as a youth minister; what influence did that have on your writing? Did you always intend to write for teenagers, or did/do you write for adults? When I was 27 years old, I wrote a mainstream, adult novel, found an agent for it and thought my life was set. My agent even optioned the thing to a movie producer, so – even better, right? Of course, it all came to nothing, so falling back on my college minor and also some graduate work in seminary, I became a youth minister. Did it for 10 years and loved it, and I discovered, actually, an innate ability to connect with teenagers, who kept me on my toes and made me laugh all the time. So, when I was ready to write another novel, I just very naturally wrote for the YA audience.

Where did this book start for you? This book began when three unrelated concepts collided. Well, bumped into each other, anyway.
  1. Years ago, I gave myself the alias "Phoebe Lilywhite" because it sounds English, which I wish I were for the accent, and it sounds like the name of someone, like me, who has never been tan in her life.
  2. I have a shameless fascination with weddings. Tacky. Elegant. Shotgun. I don’t care. I love them all.
  3. I always wanted to write something about my step-dad, who died before I ever told him how much I loved him.
So – Phoebe Lilywhite, weddings, and step-dad percolated and became I Now Pronounce You Someone Else.

Erin talks more about the role of "Phoebe Lilywhite" within the novel here:

Did anything surprise you about the way the characters or the book grew or changed during the editorial process? The entire editorial process surprised me. It’s fascinating. It begins conversationally, later involves e-mail and only then gets “down on paper” so to speak. Here’s what people should know and appreciate about Cheryl the Editor: She will not accept, “Well, that’s just the way she is,” as a justification for a character’s actions or thoughts. I tried to claim temperament once. (blushing at self) -- “She was born that way.” Ha! Throughout the editorial process, I had to defend – truly defend – my characters’ motivations, which wholly fleshed them out, and the result is – can I retell a compliment? – that one of the consistent praises I’m receiving from reviewers is that my characters are believable. Wouldn’t have happened without the comprehensive editorial process.

What was your vision of your Dream Wedding in high school? (In mine, all the girls were going to be wearing long, light pink dresses and carrying white flowers, and all the guys would wear gray tuxes with pink cummerbunds, bow ties, and boutonnieres. I have definitely grown out of this.) I think yours sounds too incredibly cute! Mine was going to involve some degree of royalty, so picture English gothic cathedrals, horse-drawn carriages and really dowdy shoes on the groom’s side of the church.

What was your own, real wedding like? I wish I could have bottled how I felt on my wedding day and sold or given it to future brides because my marrying Tim was all about marrying Tim and not about the wedding. It was important to me to be married in a church by a priest. Aside from that, nothing else mattered -- dress, colors, flowers, reception. Nothing. I didn't even want a wedding dress, kept telling my mother I'd just wear a suit I already owned, but we happened to be walking past a store in the mall one day that carried a line of wedding dresses -- eight, I believe -- and I picked the one I wanted from a catalogue, and they shipped it to my house. Didn't bother with a veil.

Tim proposed to me on Feb. 6th, 1999, and we were married the following April 17th. He told me, the night he proposed, that he asked me to marry him, not be engaged to him, and he asked my mother how quickly she could plan a wedding -- reasonably. She, Super Organizer Woman that she is, said eight weeks. We settled on ten weeks in keeping with a 17th theme in our lives. (Tim's birthday is August 17th; mine is October 17th.)

We were married at 11:30 in the morning on an unusually cold and drizzly April day. My brother, David, escorted me down the aisle. (Our father died young, and our step-father did, too.) And one of my funniest memories of the day is of David fairly yanking me back as I tried to bolt down the aisle when the music started. He was so calm and completely together as he set an appropriate processional pace.

Normally, I dislike being watched and was dreading the processional, but I remember feeling nothing but peaceful as I looked at Tim at the altar, and, once David adjusted the pace -- and we shared a near laugh -- I don't remember seeing anyone but Tim.

We each had one attendant, and we had eighty guests and a perfectly Episcopal ceremony and a perfectly Episcopal Brunch At The Club afterwards. We did the traditional cutting-of-the-nondescript-cake and fed each other small bites, and we drank champagne and laughed with friends, and it really was a lovely, simple day.

Bronwen feels strongly that she wants to wait for sex until after marriage -- an interesting contrast to a lot of YA books at present, where sex is a matter-of-fact part of teenage life. Where did you see this conclusion coming from for her? Bronwen is one of those girls who understands that sex is a huge deal. She hasn’t trivialized it to the level of a handshake, and she doesn’t buy the line that it’s special simply because her boyfriend says I love you or even because she says it. She’s smart. So is her best friend, and they see the flaw in the argument that sex is okay in a “committed relationship,” because there really are no committed relationships in high school. Agreeing to date only one person is agreeing to date only one person . . . until you break up with him or he breaks up with you. Which you do. You always do! Bronwen knows this and would rather not share the single most intimate and powerful act with a guy she’s going to break up with one day.

She also visits Jared at college twice for overnights and stays in a girls' dorm, which leads to some of the most fun scenes and conversations in the book. I'm guessing you had a good time at college? Staying up all night talking with your best friends? Few things are better than that.

How did you develop your ear for dialogue? This is such a nice question, thank you. I was a very shy, very quiet child who preferred listening to speaking. What I heard was often less interesting to me than how it was said. It still is, now that I think about it.

What have you been reading recently? Everything by Francisco X. Stork, Alan Bradley, and the 10ers.

Finally, Lightning Round! In the course of the book, Bronwen fills out a Roommate Questionnaire for college. How would you answer these same questions?

1. Do you consider yourself a: Morning Person Evening Person Morning. I’m up early, but I’m not coherent and chatty for an hour at least.

2. Do you usually keep your room: Warm Cool Cold Cool – by which I mean freezing – when my husband’s home. Otherwise warm.

3. Do you consider yourself: Shy Average Outgoing I am a shy person trapped inside the body of an outgoing, chatty person.

4. How often will you let your roommate borrow your clothes? Never Sometimes All the Time She can borrow my clothes, but they have to come back to me cleaned. Preferably professionally. Twice.

5. On weekends, will you be: On Campus Off Campus Well, what’s going on and where is it happening?

6. How many hours a week do you spend watching television or listening to music? Never Three or Four Five to Ten More Than Ten Five to ten – I watch the news morning and night and listen to music on the treadmill.

7. What word best describes the current condition of your room? Occupied.

8. What two qualities would you like most in a roommate? Good hygiene and a contagious laugh.

9. Do you have any allergies? No. There’s some family controversy over this, but no.

10. Do you have any special needs? Yes. At least once a day, I desperately need to be someplace where no one is talking to me.

11. Please list any hobbies or interests that would further help us place you with a compatible roommate. I will be compatible with anyone who likes animals. Doesn’t matter what our other interests are. (I realize this is not scientific, but it’s true.)

Thanks, Erin!