The Unwilling Grammarian: An Interview with Karlyn Thayer

Saturday, October 16, 2010

You read the winning story and think, “My story was better than that! I should have at least made it into the top five.” This is a sad yet common scenario. Your story might actually have been the best in terms of characterization and dramatic arc, but how are your technical skills?

If you continually find yourself fumbling over verb tense and dialog it is time to brush up on your grammar. What’s that? That isn’t your idea of a good time? Then you haven’t met WOW!’s coolest grammarian!

Karlyn Thayer is a published fiction author with a penchant towards romance. An instructor of story-writing and grammar for over twenty years, Karlyn is now offering a class called The Unwilling Grammarian through WOW! Courses and Classes. I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Karlyn:

Hi Karlyn, thank you for taking the time for this interview with WOW!

Tell us a little about your journey to becoming a writer.

Karlyn: My writing journey began when I discovered reading fiction, in the third grade. The first book I read was Billy and Blaze by C.W. Anderson, and it opened my eyes and mind to a new world—the shining and exquisite world of the imagination! Then I made the mental jump from reading to writing. I thought, How cool to get paid for sharing thoughts and ideas!

I think it is great that you had that thought so early on! When did that dream finally came to fruition?

Karlyn: I didn’t really get serious about writing until I was in my forties. For years I worked as a graphic artist and a typesetter. I dabbled with writing and got nowhere. Then my husband gave me a gift subscription to Writer's Digest magazine and I started to read all the articles and apply them to my work. Soon I signed up for a writing class.

That's when my learning curve jumped sky high! With guidance, I grew as a writer. None of us can be totally objective about our own work. That's why classes like the ones WOW! offers are so valuable for beginning and experienced writers. Good teachers show us our strengths and weaknesses.

That is so true! Writing, as a skill and a profession, improves greatly when one has a mentor or instructor.

Karlyn, in addition to your writing you've been teaching for over 20 years. Your students write rave reviews about their experience under your instruction. Who shaped your method of teaching?

Karlyn: My first writing teacher, Judith Toral Davis, became my gold standard for teaching. After my first course of study with her, I signed on for a second round. She died from cancer before the second round could be completed, and I've yet to find an instructor as good as she was. She encouraged in a way that brought out my best work and I sold my first story while studying with her. Naturally, I've patterned my teaching based on her methods.

The Unwilling Grammarian is a title I can relate to. As soon as someone starts talking about dangling modifiers and participle phrases my brain feels like a whirligig. I know I’m not alone in this; why do adult Americans have such trouble with grammar?

Karlyn: How many jobs actually require correct grammar? Very few! Why pay attention to something that's not important in your day-to-day life? We learn what we need to learn.

I’ve noticed what might be a trend towards writing casually—as one might speak. This seems most prevalent on the Internet. In what ways do you feel the Internet has influenced our grammar skills?

Karlyn: I think the Internet simply reflects the language of the people. The influence comes from everyday conversation, from movies, and from television. Our national and local news anchors affect our grammar. We tend to write what we hear. As speech becomes more casual, writing follows.

Because we cannot become good writers from watching television, we need to read. I'd encourage young writers to learn by reading examples of our finest fiction. Books I recommend include Sophie's Choice by William Styron, The World According to Garp by John Irving, The Secret History by Donna Tartt, The Shipping News by Annie Proulx, and What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman. These are all edge-of-your-seat can't-put-them-down-type books, and writers can learn a lot by reading them. This is one of those wonderful win/win situations: you learn and are entertained at the same time!

I think it’s safe to say that here at WOW! we absolutely agree that writer’s need to read-- and we love book recommendations! Thanks for the list.

The topic of grammar tends to be dry, but it doesn’t have to be. We all grew up reciting the rhyme “i before e accept after c.” Can you give us an example of a common grammatical error and a way to remember the rule we should follow?

Karlyn: When writing dialogue, many people have trouble remembering correct placement of periods and commas. Commas and periods should be INSIDE quotation marks, ALWAYS. Think of commas and periods as sheep and goats that need protection. If they're running loose, they get into trouble (maybe eaten by wolves). Quotation marks are the dogs that guard and protect them, so they must stay INSIDE the guarded area. Example: "Stay here," Bob said. The comma is safe INSIDE the quotation mark.

That’s a fun way to remember dialog punctuation; do you have a similar trick for remembering the difference between “effect” and “affect”?

Karlyn: "Affect" begins with the letter "a," as does "action." An affect is an action, a verb. In the meantime, "effect" sits on its butt with no action at all! One effect of poor writing is lack of strong, active verbs. You can affect your work in a positive way by adding those verbs. Notice that no action occurs with "effect."

I’m posting that one above my desk (smile). What do you hope students take with them from your class?

Karlyn: Correct grammar really is important. You wouldn't show up for a fancy dinner dressed in torn jeans and a dirty tee-shirt (at least I hope you wouldn't!) Similarly, you should submit your work in "nice clothes." I see work submitted all the time dressed in torn jeans and a dirty tee-shirt. Editors and agents won't bother to read that kind of work. Take the time to learn to write correctly!

Thank you, Karlyn; it’s been a pleasure talking with you.

The Unwilling Grammarian begins October 20th, 2010 and runs for 4 weeks. There is still time to sign up! Just go to our Classes and Workshops page. Hurry though; the class is limited to 10 students.

Interview by Robyn Chausse


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