Prologue

Here’s a little teaser from “The Amateur’s Guide to Making Your Own Miracles,” and you get to read it here first. This is the prologue.

It’s Saturday morning of Labor Day Weekend, 2017, at around seven in the morning. I’m 6,500 feet up in the mountains just below Big Bear, a couple of hours outside of Los Angeles, and I am lost in the woods.

That isn’t a metaphor. Distracted by some deer running through the trees and my own thoughts, I have wandered off of the path and have no idea at the moment how to get back to camp.

Oddly enough, I’m not that concerned. The weather and the landscape here are beautiful, and the only sounds I can hear are nature, as the many birds and chipmunks living in the area are waking up and starting their daily struggles for survival.

I’m up here because I’ve come to an adult “summer camp,” which runs for the whole long weekend. We’re staying at an actual YMCA camp which is available because schools are back in session, so there are no more kids for the camp to rent to. We’re staying in cabins with bunks, although the braver ones have brought their own tents and are roughing it outside. Meanwhile, those with less bravery but more money are staying in their own RVs back up in the parking lot.

I’m not concerned about getting lost because I’ve just had a gigantic epiphany, but I have to rewind to the previous afternoon for a moment. When we had all arrived at the camp on Friday — a diverse assortment of men with ages ranging from late 30s to early 90s — the leader and organizer of the group greeted us and gave each of us a tiny gold safety pin.

They do this camp three times a year, although this was my first visit, and every camp begins with the same ritual but a different object — last time, it was a key, for example. The object comes with simple instructions. Paraphrasing wildly here, they are:

“This pin symbolizes this session of the camp, but its meaning will be unique to each one of you. Some of you may come up with what it means right away. Some of you may not. But the important part is that the meaning of this safety pin is yours alone, and it’s most likely that no two will be the same.

“And you never have to share the secret of that meaning with anyone else…”

Up with the sun, and before my sole bunkmate, I had wandered into the woods, seen the sheer beauty of nature and the pure power of running deer, got lost — and found my meaning of that safety pin.

I’ll share it with you eventually, but finding that meaning was the culmination of a journey that had begun exactly one year and one week earlier. But before I can tell you what I discovered in those woods, I have to tell you the other story first…

Read Chapter One.

It’s usually “its”

Even Microsoft Word’s spell-check gets this one wrong sometimes, but you shouldn’t. Here’s the scoop on possessives that don’t take apostrophes.

I could write tons and tons on the use of apostrophes, but there are already plenty of guides online. So, instead, I’m going to focus on one area that causes a lot of confusion: Possessive pronouns that do not have apostrophes.

There are eight of them, five of which end in an S and one of which ends in an S sound, although the mistake is most common with only two of them — and it’s a very common error. I’ve even seen it happen on presumably professional sites like CNN and the Huffintonpost.

Here are those eight possessive pronouns:

My
Your
His
Hers
Its
Whose
Ours
Theirs

The most obvious thing about them on sight, of course, should be that there are no apostrophes to be seen. They aren’t necessary because these words are always possessive. For some of them, that doesn’t seem to cause any problems. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone use hi’s or her’s or our’s or their’s. That doesn’t mean this hasn’t happened; just that I can’t remember seeing it.

But I see “it’s” and “who’s” get misused all of the time — probably because both of them are perfectly legitimate words. It’s just that these two are contractions and not possessives. They just happen to look a lot like possessives, hence the confusion.

At least in the case of its, it’s a very easy typo to make, and I’ve caught myself doing it accidentally from time to time — hence the importance of proofreading. Of course, before you can proofread, you have to know the rules.

For “it’s” and “who’s,” the easiest way to remember is to always read them in uncontracted form. It’s helpful that the apostrophe even sort of looks like a little letter “i.” (Well, only sort of, but go with me on this one.) So, when you see “it’s” or “who’s,” read them in your head as “it is” and “who is.”

This makes it easy to spot their misuse:

The cat licks it’s paws.
The cat licks it is paws.

Oops. Wrong word! “The cat licks its paws.” Conversely:

It’s time to go.
It is time to go.

Right word!

Yes, it doesn’t make a lot of sense that we have these words that are possessive but don’t use apostrophes, but I never said that English does make sense. However, it is a fairly standard feature of a lot of languages that possessive pronouns work a little differently than regular possessives.

English used to have — and many languages still do — an entire grammatical case to show possession, so at least take heart in that fact: You only have to learn a few apostrophe exceptions instead of a completely new set of inflections for nouns!

Roller coaster

As I recovered from heart failure and lost over a hundred pounds in the course of a year, it wasn’t all just diet, exercise, and medication. A huge part of that battle was mental. Here’s one of the things that got me through it.

When I was seven years old and on a trip to visit my mom’s family back East, my dad took me to one of those rinky-dink pop-up carnivals. You know the type. They show up in public parks and church parking lots seemingly overnight and generally consist of a few shady sideshow games and a few shadier rides.

At this carnival, my dad took me on a roller coaster — my first, actually. As a roller coaster, it wasn’t much to speak of. It was a single loop that covered the area of maybe two semi-flatbed trailers, and a single circuit couldn’t have lasted a minute, if that — probably more like thirty seconds. The tallest point on it was maybe ten feet.

We strap in and the operator starts the ride. We get to the first insignificant drop, and my seven-year-old mind freaks out. I do not like this at all — the sensation of falling, and of being out of control.

We pull back into the station and I’m all ready to get off when the operator gives a look and a nod.

That wasn’t the only lap.

As I try to protest, we take off and run the course again. This time, it’s scarier, because I know what’s coming. To add insult to injury, pardon the cliché, the operator sends us on one more circuit before… freedom!

From that day forward, I knew that I hated roller coasters and avoided them. It wasn’t until I was an adult and some friends basically shamed me into getting onto Space Mountain that I discovered something I never would have otherwise.

I love roller coasters!

Space Mountain had me hooked, and from then on I’ve looked forward to riding. The only exceptions are rides with steep drops. I do not like those, but at least I figured that one out through the clear eyes of adult experience, and gave it a couple of tries before I decided that I just don’t like that physical feeling.

But that decision came after some actual testing, instead of as a seven-year-old’s panic that turned into a pseudo-phobia that lasted over a decade.

I kind of had the same issue with doctors once upon a time, and that fear and reluctance nearly killed me. The biggest surprise? Once I put myself in their hands, I realized, “I’ve been afraid of nothing all along.”

That is the state that too many of us live in: Afraid of nothing all along. So my challenge to you is this: Figure out your thing that you’re very reluctant to do. It doesn’t necessarily have to be because of fear. You can call it disgust, or nervousness, or any negative emotion, really. Next, figure out where that reluctance came from. Is it something that happened in your childhood? Is it for some reason you can’t even remember? Is it because of one bad experience as an adult?

Whatever the cause, here’s my challenge: Go do that thing. You only have to do it one time, but the important part of the exercise is confronting your reluctance and finding out whether it’s real or imagined.

The worst thing that can happen is that you confirm you’ve been right all these years, but at least then you get to be justified in your dislike of something. But I’m willing to bet that most of those fears and distastes are imagined, and you might even discover a new thing that you really, really like.

Like I did, with roller coasters. But I never would have found that out without taking one more ride.

A pair of pet peeves

Two particular English expressions are becoming more and more common — but if you use either or both, you can risk sounding like you don’t know the language very well. Here’s why that opinion is not off-base.

I’ll make this short and sweet: The proper expression is “based on.” You’re not looking for “around,” and you are definitely not looking for “off” or the even more heinous “off of.” Just look at the words. What is a base? Something that supports something else — so nothing can be “based off of” something else, because then it’s not standing on that base at all.

See why that is?

Something can most definitely be spun off from something else — but then it’s based on the thing it was spun off from. It starts on the base, and then goes off to wherever it’s being spun.

To recap: It is always based on and never any other variation.

Expression two

The other word combination that always grates is the mismatch of “how” and “like.” You’ve probably seen this little abomination all over the place: “This is how it looks like.”

Nope. “How” is self-contained. It’s the one question word in English that cannot ever go with “like” in a statement. Contrast that with things like “This is who you look like,” or “This is what it sounds like (when doves cry),” or “Where does it seem like we’re going?” I’ll trust you to come up with your own examples for when, which, and why.

Each of those words has a single, specific answer. “How” does not. “How” is something a little more elaborate than a simple response:

“What does it look like?”

“A loaf of bread.”

“How does it look?”

“Like someone threw a Jackson Pollack painting into a blender and left the lid off.”

But even when it’s not in the form of a question, you don’t need the “like” with the “how” because you’re either going to leave it as a simple statement, “This is how it looks,” or you’re going to answer it with another clause, “This is how it looks when you drop fifteen watermelons out of a hot air balloon.”

Since we’re describing the actual experience we’re going to show you, it doesn’t look like anything else. It looks exactly like what it is — making this one online “like” you’re going to want to avoid.

Better seen than heard?

If you’ve ever tried to learn Gaelic, then all those silent letters may have stopped you. But there’s apparently a method to that madness. Not so much in English, where there’s only one letter that is never silent.

First, a quick quiz to be answered later. Without cheating in Google translator or something, how would you pronounce this Gaelic surname? Mudhean. Hint: The answer is not “mud hen.”

Now, I’d mentioned previously that I’m glad I learned English first because it’s the hardest to pronounce. However, I’ve tried several times to learn my mother’s family’s mother tongue, which is Irish Gaelic, and have failed completely for exactly that reason: It is impossible to pronounce!

Seriously, look at these Americans trying to pronounce common Irish first names — and trust me, I once watched my own father being totally clueless on how to pronounce the very common name “Sean.”

Now look at this liar of an Irishman (because all of us are liars!) claiming that it’s so easy! Right. Maybe if you get rid of all those damn extra H’s and silent letters and dipthongs that bear no resemblance to the vowels in them!

But… this brings me to the point of this article. As difficult as Gaelic pronunciation can seem to English speakers, our language is still weirder because almost every letter in it can be silent. In fact, Miriam-Webster only found one and a half exceptions in their very fascinating article. The first is kind of a cheat because it comes from a direct borrowing from Spanish, and it shouldn’t exactly be unpronounced. I’ll give it to you here as a freebie: it’s the “J” in marijuana. And it isn’t silent, it’s a “y” sound, but hey, I don’t expect gabachos to know that.

The other letter might surprise you, though, and I’ll give you a free hint: It’s not a vowel, so you’ve only got 21 guesses. Well, make that 20, since we’ve already eliminated J. So… which letter in the English language has no examples (to date) of words in which it is silent? To find out, you’ll have to read the Miriam-Webster article.

And, to answer the original question, the name “Mudhean” is pronounced like “Moon,” but with a very, very liquid “u” sound in the middle. Imagine it like drawing that “oo” out a couple of syllables.

Precision

While English can take a pounding and not break, you really should strive to use it in the best ways possible. Here are some of my favorite confused words and the easy ways to remember which is which and how to use them properly.

Of course, I’ve written before about how malleable the English language can be and still be understood. A famous example — possibly apocryphal — details Winston Churchill’s testy reply to an aide who criticized him for ending his sentences with prepositions. Churchill is reported to have replied, “That is an impertinence up with which I shall not put!”

The word order is completely wrong, but you still understood the intention, right?

Yes, English is malleable — a word which is derived from the Latin word for “hammer,” malleus. This is also where we get the word “mallet.” And what thing do you most think of as being malleable? Probably gold, the most malleable metal in the world which, in that sense, means the easiest to hammer because it’s one of the softest.

But I do digress…

While English is capable of handling a lot of mangling, it’s not something that a native speaker — or a proficient ESL speaker — should really be doing. It’s allowable more as a means of facilitating communication with a non-native speaker. For example, if a cab driver from Malaysia misuses parts of speech or words, I’m not going to stomp on his grammar if I understand what he means. He’s not required to speak at that level.

But… if a native speaker who is trying to communicate makes certain simple errors — especially if they claim to be a writer or journalist or teacher or other user of the language as a tool of the trade — then I am going to leap on that with both feet.

It isn’t that hard to learn certain things and keep them in your mind, or to look them up when in doubt. Not sure whether to use affect or effect? Look it up. Can’t remember whether it should be it’s or its, or who’s or whose? Ditto. And don’t rely on spellcheck. It won’t always tell you that you meant principle when you used principal if you spelled the word right.

There are some simple tricks and mnemonics to remember things, though, and here are some of my favorites — a few of which I came up with myself.

Who vs. whom

To be honest, you can pretty much stick with “who” in all cases in informal speech, but it can bite you hard if you misuse them in formal writing — especially if you use “whom” where you should use “who,” because that more than anything will show that you don’t know the difference and are just trying to be pretentious.

The difference, in technical terms, is that “who” is a subject pronoun and “whom” is an object pronoun. Who does something. Whom has something done to them or given to them. But in order to remember most easily which is what, just remember “he” and “him.” This isn’t a sexist example, by the way — it’s just that since “whom” and “him” both end in M it’s easier to remember.

So… take question and make it a statement, replacing who or whom with the right pronoun — which should be easy — and you have your answer: “To who/whom does the invitation go?” “The invitation goes to him.” Therefore, it’s “whom.” “Who/whom is walking down the hall?” “He is walking down the hall.” Therefore, “Who is walking down the hall?”

Affect/Effect

Another tricky one that’s easier than you think, with one very specific exception that you’ll rarely run across unless you’re a mental health professional. One of these words is a verb and the other is a noun, and the key to knowing which is which is right in the words.

“Affect” is almost always a verb, meaning an action word — and it starts with A as well. So, if it’s an action, then it’s almost always “affect.” “She was very affected by the poem.” (“Whom did the poem affect?”)

“Effect” is almost always a noun, which is a concrete object or… an entity. There’s your E, for entity and effect. “The poem had an effect on her.” (“Whom did the poem have an effect on?”)

The “affect” as a noun exception refers to the way that someone presents their emotions through expressions and is most often heard in the phrase “flat affect,” meaning that they are showing no emotions through their affect, or appearance.

The “effect” as a verb exception occurs almost always and specifically in the phrase “effecting a change,” so it’s kind of easy to avoid if you’re not sure — although remember, a change is not a living thing, so it’s hard to really affect it.

Desert/Dessert

This one is really easy but, surprisingly, I didn’t know the difference until I was given a simple mnemonic by a TV producer I worked for, who told me (in her notes on a script, no less!) that the way to remember is that a “desert” is full of Sand, while a “dessert” is Something Sweet. Boom, done.

And, I suppose, by extension, you (verb) desert something by Shuffling away… Yeah, that one needs work.

Bonus round: noun/verb

I only just learned this one but… typically, in English, for words that are spelled the same but pronounced differently, the emphasis is on the first syllable if it’s a noun, and the last if it’s a verb: Lost in the desert, noun; the soldier will desért his post, verb. Obvious exception — of course: he bought shoe polish and then decided to polish his shoes. Oops…

Comprise

This is one of those words that always gets used backwards, but if you want to appear really educated you’ll get it right. The way most people use it is backwards — “The chess set is comprised of many pieces,” and it’s a synonym for “made up of,” but that’s wrong.

In reality, it’s more direct but also more subtle: “comprise” applies to the thing doing the containing, not the things in it, and it doesn’t need the preposition “of.” So the correct use would be something like “The USA comprises fifty states and various territories.” (Not “The USA is comprised of…”)

E.G. vs. I.E.

Last example, but one that will set you apart, and you only need to remember four little words. “E.G.” is short for “exempli gratia,” and if that looks familiar it’s because in Spanish it would be “ejemplo gratis,” and you probably know the word “gratis” even if you only speak English because it means “free.”

So… e.g. means “free example,” and a free example can be one of many. “The zoo is full of many animals, e.g. lions.” This doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have zebras or tigers or bears — oh my — just that you only listed one of them.

I.E. is more exclusive, because it comes from the Latin “id est,” meaning, “that is.” You only use I.E. when you are giving a unique or specific example. E.G. (see what I did there?) “He was only interested in getting his pilot on the Peacock Network, i.e. NBC.” There is only one Peacock Network, after all.

They were going to move to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, i.e. The White House.

There are a lot more examples I could give, and when I get to apostrophes and homonyms, hang on to your hats, but these should be enough for now. Enjoy — and share your favorite confused words and mnemonic helps in the comments below. Thanks!

How to structure your writing

You see it mostly in the film industry, rarely in TV, sort of onstage, and well-hidden in novels: An obsession over getting a story’s structure “right.” But what is the right structure, anyway?

Certain people who shall remain nameless have made way too much money presuming to teach the “right” way to structure a story, particularly screenplays, but the truth is that there is no magic formula to structuring a script. Sadly, in the film business, you have to make a screenplay look like it follows whatever flavor-of-the-month structure is preferred by the accountants running the show — they don’t know how to read scripts otherwise — but it really is a lot of obsession over a problem that isn’t as difficult as it should be.

There’s a term that comes out of the world of architecture but which really applies to any art: “Form follows function.” That is, if you’re building a bakery, you shouldn’t design it like it’s a library and vice versa. Otherwise, you’ll just wind up with a bad bakery (or a loathsome library).

Likewise, the overall structure of the piece you’re writing should reflect the story you’re writing, and you can see examples of this everywhere. “A Beautiful Mind,” for example, told the story of a man whose schizophrenia began to develop in college and it told that story from his point of view — it wasn’t obvious that he actually had mental issues until well into the movie.

Pulp Fiction” takes inspiration from its title to structure the story, which is more episodic and novelistic — and also rattles the old rule that movies had to follow a strict three-act format.

You see this even more strongly onstage. For example, the musical “Chicago” was designed to mimic a vaudeville show of the era — the 1920s — a convention that was sort of kept and sort of not in the film version. Film and TV, by necessity, almost always have to be more literal than other formats, although there are those rare films, like 2003’s “Dogville,” a Lars von Trier movie in which the “set” is just a schematic diagram of the town it’s set in on the floor of an empty soundstage.

Of course, films like that don’t often find wide audiences.

But to meander back to the subject at hand, structure really works like this, and it’s work like this for as long as people have been telling stories: There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end.

That’s it. Oh, except that each of those has its own beginning, middle, and end, so you eventually wind up with three sets of three.

  1. Beginning: This is the part in which we find out who the characters are, where the thing is happening, and an idea of what the situation or conflict will be — what is the event that makes the story happen?
  2. Middle: This is where the main story happens, with all the stuff set up in the beginning developing and complicating itself and the conflict building until we hit the climax at the end of the middle — the point where it looks like things couldn’t get any worse or more complicated. Or can they?
  3. End: This is where everything plays out and is resolved. If the story is a comedy, then the protagonist gets what they were after. If it’s a tragedy, then they don’t. Note that these are the strict, classical definitions of the two — meaning that yes, technically “The Martian” was a comedy and won its Golden Globe in the right category.

Now, here’s the fun part: Arranging things this way absolutely does not mean that you have to tell your story in strict chronological fashion. “Pulp Fiction” jumps all over the place but still progresses forward dramatically. “Memento” goes in one direction and out the other. “Run Lola Run” tells its story three times. “Merrily We Roll Along” is still backwards.

In all good art, the structure is not temporal. It’s emotional. Think of how different “Citizen Kane” would be if you found out what “Rosebud” meant in the first scene instead of the last — and yet it’s entirely possible that the revealing moment (in “real life”) may have actually happened much closer to what we saw as the beginning of the story rather than near the end.

So when you set out to tell your story, first find the form to follow your function, then pick two points: What’s the beginning, and what’s the ending? Next, figure out what complications and conflicts happen in the middle. Now subdivide your beginning, middle, and ending into their own beginnings, middles, and endings, and fill up those nine little boxes.

There’s your structure. Now build the thing to look like the form you came up with originally. Don’t worry that much about things like page count or what exactly happens when. If you can explain what happens in your story when and why, then you’ve already got the pitch that will make it look like your script tastes like the structure flavor-of-the-month — and if you’re writing for theatre, you’re going to be much less limited in that regard to begin with.

Don’t be afraid of structure. Embrace it and make it your own.