Dispatches | January 14, 2011

Next Tuesday will be the fourth class period of the introduction to creative writing course that I teach. The fourth class of the semester is always special for me. It’s when I spend all seventy-five minutes leading “Grammar Boot Camp,” a hodgepodge of mechanical points that my students need to know as fiction writers. In truth, Boot Camp involves more than grammar: we cover everything from formatting and punctuating dialogue to the proper use of commas—the difference between “It’s time to eat, Grandma” and “It’s time to eat Grandma”—to the difference between “who” and “that” to the conjugation of “lie” and “lay.”

And I explain without apology, on the first page of my Boot Camp handout, why it all matters.

It’s not just that you must master these technical points in order to do okay in this class, or to demonstrate that you’re on your way to becoming a writer. The stakes are actually much higher than that. Failure to master these points signals to an editor/teacher/reader that you are less than fully committed to your own work. And if you aren’t committed, then why should anyone else be?

That’s the fourth class period. The fifth class period, I give an exam on everything covered during Boot Camp day.

In other words, I’m sort of draconian about all this, but that’s only because I happen to believe in it. I believe that students armed with sound mechanics not only command more authority as writers but also know they command more authority, giving them even additional authority. As a bonus, I also believe that my students appreciate the endeavor, even if they groan about it a little at the time, and that they face the rest of the semester with more confidence than they would otherwise.

Over the holidays, I received the page proofs of my forthcoming collection. It was my last chance to read the book and catch any errors before publication. By this point, the stories had been revised and revised again. Many had already been published in journals. They had been edited and copyedited. I’d read each of these stories, in other words, about a zillion times and had already caught, surely, every error there was to catch.

I ended up with a bulleted list four pages long.

To be fair, some of these corrections had more to do with being consistent among stories than with mistakes per se—like using a lowercase “t” in “t-shirt,” or indicating time as “two p.m.” rather than “2:00 p.m.” or “2 p.m.” or “two o’clock.”

But apparently there was something about seeing the whole book formatted that caused me to see the work anew and catch mistakes that had up to that point eluded me. One story included the sentence “I twisted opened the bottle” instead of “I twisted open the bottle.” A few times, an entire word got skipped: “That my dad look foolish” instead of “That made my dad look foolish.”

My usage errors included “some time” where it should have been “sometime,” and having people “hone” in on my character’s weakness, rather than “home” in on it.

Reading the entire book start to finish, I also discovered how often I used the word “in” when I really meant “into.”

My biggest sin of all for a book set on the Jersey Shore was my mention of the boardwalk game “Ski-ball” rather than the properly spelled “Skee-ball.” This, from an expert Skee-ball player! (I have the unredeemed tickets to prove it.)

As the list of corrections to my supposedly “finished” book grew from a half-page to two pages to four, I couldn’t help thinking about my new crop of students and the Boot Camp we’d soon face together, and how no matter where we are as writers, the errors in our work that we must home in on never really go away.

Michael Kardos is the author of the story collection One Last Good Time, forthcoming Feb 1. While earning his Ph.D. at the University of Missouri, he served as Contest Editor for The Missouri Review. He currently co-directs the creative writing program at Mississippi State University. His website is michaelkardos.com.