What If You’re Not a Strong Finisher?

What if you’re too creative? What if you never finish anything because you keep getting new ideas that excite you more than the one you’re working on? What if you’re a good starter, but not a strong finisher?

Hi Randy! I had a question I hoped you could help me with. I love stories, and I have many ideas that I believe I could write into books. Problem is that I tend to hop back and forth on which one to write. I start on the one I’m interested in, make some progress on character info and the story, then I get interested in another story idea and want to write that. Often I never even start writing the actual book.
Clearly you can see that isn’t very productive. I know it, and often those ideas just sit half formed. It’s not that they couldn’t be good stories. I give my characters fears, lies to believe, a dark moment in their past, and have some idea for how the story would go. I just lose interest. Do you have that problem? If so what do you do?
I’m now trying to write a shorter story around 30 to 50 pages. I think that might help make it easier to finish something. What do you think? Thanks a million! God Bless!

Randy sez: Yes, losing focus on a story is a problem. No, it’s not one I suffer with. (I tend to go the opposite way and hang on to stories for very long times.) We all have our tendencies, and not all of them are productive. So how would I solve Elizabeth’s problem?
I can think of three directions she might go. I don’t know her exact life situation, so I can’t guess which of these might work best. Maybe none of them will work for her. But listing them out here may give her another idea. And I suspect this is an issue that a lot of my Loyal Blog Readers might have.
So for those of you who aren’t strong finishers, here are three suggestions.
Write Shorter
Elizabeth has already suggested the idea of writing shorter, and it’s one I rather like.
If it’s hard to stay focused on a long project of several hundred pages, it might be easier to stay the course on a short project of a few dozen pages.
You might take this even further and work on flash fiction of a few hundred words up to a thousand words or so. You can write a piece of flash fiction, edit it, and polish it to perfection in an hour or two. That’s really not enough time to get bored.
Juggle Your Stories
It might also work to give yourself permission to be working on several stories at once. The idea here is that you always work on the one you have energy for. Then when that starts to feel stale, switch to another for a while.
This works if the problem is boredom, rather than an unwillingness to finish. I have a co-worker who likes to have numerous tasks on his pile. He’s constantly switching from one to another. Wouldn’t work for me, but it works for him.
But if the problem is that you really don’t do well with finishing projects, this isn’t going to work. You’ll just juggle more and more and more, without ever crossing the line on any of them.
Write With a Partner
I’ve worked with a coauthor, and it worked out well for both of us. All authors have strengths and weaknesses. If you can find one with strengths and weaknesses that complement yours, then this might be the ticket.
If you’re a weak finisher, then what you’re looking for here is somebody who is a strong finisher and can drag you across the line, kicking and screaming.
Why would anyone want to team up with you if they’re such a great finisher? Maybe they’re not great at starting. In that case, you’d be good at getting them revved up, and they’d take care of getting you wrapped up.
In Summary
So those are three possible solutions to the problem. There may be more, but let’s summarize the ones we’ve discussed:

Try writing shorter.

Try juggling multiple stories.

Try writing with a strong finisher as a partner.

That’s a darn fine hellstrip planting…

A friend and I enjoyed a meal at Güero a couple months back, I kept meaning to return to take some pics in the daylight and finally did…
Like many Portland restaurants they’ve squeezed a little outdoor seating area along the sidewalk. We Portlanders LOVE to be outside when the weather permits. From this vantage point the hellstrip looks nicely planted, but nothing really special, right?
But what about from this end? That’s a different ball of wax, eh?
Those Yucca rostrata have the fatest trunks I’ve seen, ever…
I love how the utility meters are almost completely hidden by potted plants. I wonder how the peeps who have to read those meters feel about it?

Among the many stellar plants in the hellstrip there’s an Edgeworthia (blooming, ya, it was a few weeks ago that I took these photos)…
An Arbutus unedo (strawberry tree)…
And a couple Acca sellowiana, aka pineapple guava.

Moving on we’ve got a phormium and a palm, probably a Trachycarpus fortunei.
And a Choisya…
Yep, that’s a darn fine collection of plants!
But of course the stars are these two…
Across the street is an assortment of stock-tank planters I wrote about on the
As seems to be the case these days someone had to go and get bad with the spray paint.

The Homeless Man’s Drinking, Sex and Golf Joke

A man was walking down the street when he was accosted by a particularly dirty and shabby-looking homeless man who asked him for a couple of dollars for dinner.
The man took out his wallet, extracted ten dollars and asked, “If I give you this money, will you buy some beer with it instead of dinner?”
“No, I had to stop drinking years ago,” the homeless man replied.
“Will you spend it on a hooker.”
Are you crazy, gave it up years ago. Look at me, no one would have sex with me.”
“Will you spend this on green fees at a golf course instead of food?” the man asked.
“Are you NUTS!” replied the homeless man. “I haven’t played golf in 20 years!”
“Well,” said the man, “I’m not going to give you money. Instead, I’m going to take you home for a hot shower and a terrific dinner cooked by my wife.”
The homeless man was astounded.
“Won’t your wife be furious with you for doing that?
The man replied, “That’s okay. It’s important for her to see what a man looks like after he has given up drinking, sex and golf.”

About Cliffhangers

Is it true that every chapter of your novel needs to end on a cliffhanger? If so, then what exactly is a cliffhanger? And if not, then why does everyone say you should end on a cliffhanger?
Nancy asked:

How can I make readers keep reading?
One thing that I’ve really struggled with is understanding what my teachers mean when they tell me that I have to keep my readers reading. They always tell me to try and have some sort of cliffhanger so that the readers don’t put the book down.
First of all, what exactly does that mean? Second, how can I achieve that?
I really do want to keep my readers interested, but I don’t know exactly how I’m supposed to do that, or what I’m supposed to do to not make my readers expect the next cliffhanger.

Randy sez: If you’re writing an over-the-top action-adventure novel, then typically most scenes end with a cliffhanger—your protagonist is figuratively hanging from a cliff by his fingertips. The key word here is “figuratively.” Most novels don’t have cliffs. If you want to get more literal, the scene ends with the protatonist in some sort of life-or-death situation with no obvious way out. That’s what we mean by a cliffhanger.
And that’s fine, if you’re writing an over-the-top action-adventure novel. That’s what your target audience wants.
But not every novel is over the top, because there are all different kinds of target audiences.
And it’s not true, even in an action-adventure novel, that every single scene needs to end with a cliffhanger.
The Two Ways to End a Scene
Yes, you want to end every scene in a way that gives your reader a reason to turn the page and read the next scene. But you’ve actually got two options here:

End your scene with your point-of-view character in trouble.

End your scene with your point-of-view character making a risky decision.

I discuss these two options in my latest book, How to Write a Dynamite Scene Using the Snowflake Method. If you want all the details, with examples from several best-selling novels, you can check that out.
In this post, we’ll consider only the case where the scene ends with trouble.
The Right Kind of Trouble
Ending a scene with your POV character in trouble is good, but it needs to be the right kind of trouble. The right kind of trouble will make your reader worry about your character.
If your POV character is a sleazy, vicious gangster trying to rob a bank, and the robbery goes wrong, and the cops arrive and arrest him at the end of the scene, that’s certainly trouble. But your reader probably won’t worry about that character, because the creep is going to get what’s coming to him. Your reader might keep reading to see justice served. But then again, maybe not.
But suppose your POV character is a decent guy who was coming to the bank to ask for a loan to send his daughter to college. On the way in the door, he’s grabbed by gangsters who put a gun to his head and use him as a human shield. They force him to hand over the note to the teller. Then the SWAT team busts in, there’s a shootout, and the gangsters are all killed. By some miracle, your POV character is left alive, but the cops don’t know he’s a good guy, so they arrest him. Now your reader has to turn the page.
What’s the difference?
In the first case, the gangster deserves trouble, and gets it. That’s justice, and it’s no cause for worry.
In the second case, your character doesn’t deserve trouble, but gets it anyway. That’s injustice, and it’s great cause for worry.
If you’re going to end your scene with trouble, make it the right kind of trouble.
Who’s in Trouble?
Every scene has a POV character, but that character might not be the protagonist of your novel. The POV character might be the novel’s villain Or your protagonist’s love interest. Or the village goofball.
If your POV character is the villain of the story, then as we saw above, it’s not all that interesting to get him in trouble. That’s not going to force your reader to turn the page.
But what if your villain ends the scene with a success? Suppose your POV character is a vicious gangster who robs a bank and runs out the door with a big bag of cash, intent on jumping in his getaway car. Then he sees the cops coming, so he grabs an innocent bystander and drags her into the car with him to prevent the cops shooting.
That’s not trouble for your POV character. But it’s trouble for the woman they hauled into the car. And it’s trouble for the cops. Once again, that’s an injustice. And your reader’s going to worry. Your reader will turn the page.
If you’re going to end your scene with trouble, make it trouble for the right person.
But How Much Trouble?
One issue here is that most novels are not over-the-top. Not all readers are looking for a bank robbery in every scene. If you’re writing a novel at a lower level of tension, that’s fine.
But you still need to end your scenes with trouble. Scale the trouble down to the level of tension your target audience is looking for.
And this is where I have a problem with the term “cliffhanger.” That word implies a high level of tension. High tension may not be appropriate for your novel.

Hortlandia Haul!

I neglected to take a single photo while shopping
First up is this Paris quadrifolia from Windcliff Plants. After failure with this genus (two plants that never amounted to anything) my Paris polyphylla – Heronswood form has been a huge success. I thought maybe by branching out, but staying with plants from Dan Hinkley’s collections, I might experience a repeat success. Fingers crossed.
Clematis repens ‘Bells of Emei Shan’
This is not your usual climbing clematis. When discovered (again Dan Hinkley, in 1996) it first thought to be an epiphyte as it was “it was observed as growing as an epiphyte on a small tree in damp shade” (
This very happy Opuntia humifusa was only $4, of course it needed to come home with me.
The variegated lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis ‘Aureovariegata’) I bought last spring held its variegation nicely throughout the summer. I needed another.
This Asarum maximum ‘Ling Ling’ was a steal at $5, it’s going in a shady dish planting I’m putting together.
Also from Hortlandia but hanging in the basement for now, Aporophyllum Shirley ‘Sun Cactus’ (that’s what the label says)…
I’m so excited there are already orange flower buds!
This bright Cryptanthus bivittatus ‘Crimson Star’ was at the Dancing Oaks booth. A little random and not quite at home with their usual selections but I was happy to see someone selling these beauties so I had to buy one.
Post Hortlandia shopping I made another trip to Dick’s greenhouse (yes, I did go twice in 3 days). This trip was because
Another hanging leaf dish! Like the one I bought on my first visit, shared in
The new one is a shiny brown and signed by the artist (Dick, aka Richard)…
The bottom is a shiny green. I’m pretty excited about this!
I know what you’re thinking, “she bought some bromeliads too…” okay yes, but not this one. I spotted a few hanging out under a table, ones I hadn’t seen before, and pulled one of them out to take a closer look. Dick told me if I wanted it I should just take it. Of course I did.
The same with this guy, who was so top heavy he fell out of his pot and into my hands.
There’s a fern growing out of the dying (already bloomed) third of the plant. I’ll have to try and save it.
The teeth on this one are pretty fabulous.
As are the stripes.
This is the only bromeliad I bought, it might be a sort of tillandsia, Dick wasn’t sure. It’s almost 6 feet tall! (or should that be long?)
He warned me that it might break apart in transport, as it had been hanging in the same spot for years.
It didn’t, and I’m hoping it doesn’t, because I want to hang it from Clifford’s branches this summer…
Okay, that’s enough new plants for awhile…

Advice for an IRS Audit

Myron Greenberg, a wealthy businessman received a letter from the IRS. They will be conducting an audit. It really upsets him and he calls his accountant, Saul Meyers.
MYRON: (pleading): “Saul, what are they doing to me? Why are they doing this to me?”’
SAUL (calming); “Myron, don’t worry about it. I’ve got all the receipts, the account is up to date, it’s no problem. But let me give you a bit of advice.
When you go to the Audit, make a bad impression. Wear the crummiest, dirtiest clothes you’ve got. Have holes in your shoes, ripped pants and look shabby. I mean really look terrible, because if they have a little sympathy, they’ll go easy on you.”
Then Myron called his lawyer, Charlie Steinberg. His Lawyer said: “Myron, it’s no problem, I’m sure everything is up to date. You’ve got a great accountant, don’t worry about it. But let me give you a tip. When you go to the audit, it’s very important that you make a good impression. Wear your best suit, and your best shirt with a silk tie and cufflinks and shine your shoes. Look important, because if you look like a somebody they respect you and will go easy on you.”
And now he’s torn. That night he bumped into his Rabbi at the Deli and he told the Rabbi the story.
RABBI: “Myron, it reminds me of sometimes when I perform a wedding. The bride’s father will tell his daughter that on her wedding night to wear a nightgown with a high collar and long sleeves and a full-length robe…cover up, you know, be a little demure. And the mother says, ‘Don’t be silly. Wear a low cut negligee with the cleavage sticking out — look a little sexy”.
“Myron I will say to you just like I say to the bride on her wedding night, it makes no difference what you wear, you’re gonna get fucked!”

Slapped Silly by Exclamation Points

When I’m reading for pleasure, I enjoy novels just as other readers do. I don’t edit or proofread my way through; I actually enjoy the adventures, the characters, and the emotional ups and downs. But just like every other reader, I get ticked off by poor plotting or unbelievable character behavior.
I can also get distracted by punctuation. Most of the time I ignore an unusual punctuation choice. The author uses semicolons improperly? Not usually an issue. Commas in the wrong places? Everyone does it. Such punctuation doesn’t interfere with my enjoyment of the story.
But the book I’m reading now—traditionally published by an author well known in the genre—is so full of exclamation points that I feel like I’m being slapped by them every other sentence and sometimes three, four, and five sentences in a row.
I want to tell the characters and the author STOP YELLING AT ME.
Yes, the overuse of exclamation points is so overwhelming that it comes across as characters yelling. But yelling for no reason. Almost every statement accompanied by an exclamation point is a simple declarative sentence, no special punctuation needed.
Compounding the problem is the fact that this isn’t the quirk of a single character; such a quirk could be argued to be legitimate, a way the character presents him- or herself. But because every character speaks in exclamations—so far, eighty-some pages in, every character has exclaimed the most common comments as if they’re beyond excited about what they’re saying—the quirk belongs to the writer and not to a character. And it’s a practice, habit, or deliberate choice that needed attention in the rewrite or edit stage, well before the book was published.
And no, I’m not exaggerating when I say that every character who speaks utters dramatic exclamations. At least that’s what the punctuation would tell the reader. The practice is both unnecessary and annoying. The presence of so many exclamation points goes beyond being noticeable. The excessive and unnecessary punctuation marks create a negative impact for the reader.
Okay, that’s me reacting as a reader. As an editor, I’m going to suggest that you don’t overwhelm your readers with an overabundance of any punctuation mark, especially the unusual or less common ones—colon, semicolon, dash, parentheses, and exclamation point.
Punctuation, even when used correctly, can stand out in a negative way. And the less common the punctuation, the more noticeable the poor use or overuse will be. Any mark used too often can stand out when it should instead do its business without drawing attention to itself.
We can talk about other punctuation another time—we recently looked at too many questions and question marks in a story. But today I want to suggest that you keep exclamation points to a minimum, especially in adult fiction. And that you reserve the marks for true exclamations, typically voiced in dialogue.
In this book I’m reading, characters even think in exclamation points, as if they’re constantly yelling in their heads or exclaiming without speech. It’s odd to repeatedly see a character thinking so loudly or excitedly, especially when what he or she is thinking isn’t exciting but is instead quite ordinary thought.
An exclamation point on its own doesn’t automatically convey excitement, so simply adding one to a sentence doesn’t create emotion or passion. The context and story situation, tension and conflict, and word choices, word order, and sentence construction can all help a writer create a dramatic moment. And once those devices are used, an exclamation point is often unnecessary.
Yet the exclamation point is a legitimate punctuation mark. But it shouldn’t be used to pump up what’s lacking in the words themselves. It shouldn’t be used to fill in for the absence of strong character responses. And it definitely shouldn’t be used when a sentence is a simple declaration, a mundane comment or observation with no excitement or drama to it.
I was going to offer a few examples from the book so you could get a sense of what I’m talking about, yet out of context, the misuse of the exclamation points isn’t necessarily evident. Almost any sentence could be an exclamation, depending on the circumstances. What I want to stress concerning the use of exclamation points in this book is that there is no need for most of them. The phrases and sentences are plain declarations, not emotion-laden exclamations or bellowing.
There are paragraphs of dialogue containing four and five exclamation points. Characters engaged in normal conversation pass exclamation points back and forth as though they’re playing hot potato. One of the pages I read after I began writing this article had 13 exclamation points. Thirteen. That’s exhausting to read—I can only imagine how exhausting it is for characters to speak and think that way for page after page and moment after moment. It’s as if the characters are constantly surprised or unnaturally but steadily ecstatic.
Such speech, such behavior, is unrealistic. Also, since even the most common declarations have exclamation points attached, everything is given prominence or a pseudo-importance, meaning that ultimately nothing stands out.
_______________________________
Children’s fiction can use more exclamation points than adult fiction can. The use of the punctuation mark is one way of showing new readers what’s exciting to the character. But adults and experienced readers don’t need a visual every other sentence.
And even if one character speaks in exclamations, not all of them will. Three and four characters certainly wouldn’t need to exclaim four and five lines of dialogue in multiple paragraphs on the same page.
To reduce the number of exclamation points when they’ve been overused, I often suggest that writers take them all out of a manuscript and then read the story from hard copy, adding exclamation points as necessary. The number is often greatly reduced, leaving only those that are actually necessary and useful.
There’s no correct number of exclamation points per book, but you might find that you don’t need more than a dozen or two in an 85,000-word story. One story may require ten times that many while another story may not need even one.* The use of exclamation points is part of a writer’s style and is a reflection of the needs of a particular story and the genre. But the point is to be deliberate about their use, using them only as necessary and not as a decorative flourish. Use word choices, sentence structure, and character dialogue and actions to create the mood or tone necessary for the scene. Don’t throw exclamation-point confetti onto a page of text and assume that the punctuation will do the work of creating tension or excitement.
Such abandon may have readers gritting their teeth and wondering why every character is yelling all the time, even in their thoughts.
This is definitely an area for restraint.

When to Use Exclamation Points
•  Use exclamation points for exclamations—commonly in dialogue, sometimes in thoughts, and only rarely in general narration. By general narration here I mean actual narration and not dialogue masquerading as narration. Some narration is actually a character’s (or the narrator’s) lightly veiled monologue directed at himself or at the reader, and you could just as easily use exclamation points in such text as you would in spoken dialogue and thoughts. We use exclamation points much less often for description, for the depiction of action, in back story, and in summary than we do in dialogue unless we’re including character reactions or opinions in the same bit of text.
A comparison—
The sky was angry, a contrast to only moments before. The clouds had expanded and now wrestled with one another for space. Rain burst out of those clouds with an explosion of fury.
Mara couldn’t even cry. Her wedding dress, the hem already brown with mud, was plastered to her body.
***
What a horrendous day! Without warning, rain had burst out of the sky. Mara couldn’t even cry. Her wedding dress—the stupid twenty-thousand-dollar gown she just had to have—was now a wet rag.
I’m not saying that you’d never use an exclamation point in narration, just that they are many times more common in dialogue and thoughts.
•  And rather than have every character bellow out their speech, emphasize only a few exclamations by a few characters or reserve exclamation points for key emotional outbursts.
•  Rather than use exclamation points in three or four sentences in a paragraph, try using the mark once to highlight one phrase or sentence.
Now, if a character is actually yelling multiple sentences, that’s a different situation. Exclamation points are welcome, even multiple marks, when they’re truly needed.
•  Use exclamation points after interjections.
“Hey! I was using that.”
•  Use exclamation points for commands.
“Drop it right now!”
•  Use exclamation points to indicate a raised voice.
“No, no, no!” she wailed.
“Help!”
•  Use exclamation points to reflect almost any strong emotion, including dismay, surprise, urgency, fear, and enthusiasm.
Dread rushed through her in a wave of heat when she turned back to the waiting officer. “I left my wallet in my other purse!”
“Tommy actually won!”
•  Use exclamation points for rhetorical questions. (Question marks and periods can also be used.)
“So you can’t you help me!”
•  Use the exclamation point to show excitement that’s already there; don’t use it to try to foment excitement.
•  And unless you’re deliberately using exclamation points for an effect—a rare effect—don’t have characters yell every sentence or add so much emotion to their words that they speak every sentence as as exclamation.
Can something like the following example work? Maybe. If the circumstances demand such punctuation and the setup isn’t used again and again without restraint.
“Lisa! I told you I didn’t do it!” She always deliberately misunderstood! “It was the burglar when he went racing through the house! He broke your lamp!”
But even exaggeration can be toned down or tweaked, leaving the emotion still as potent.
“Lisa, I told you I didn’t do it!” She always deliberately misunderstood. “It was the burglar! He broke your lamp.”

Particulars and Conventions
•  In fiction, one exclamation point at the end of a sentence is sufficient. There’s no range of excitement conveyed by the number of exclamation points. Exceptions for the portrayal of e-mail and other character-generated writings.
•  We typically don’t pair an exclamation point with a question mark. Maybe every so often in children’s fiction such a practice can be used for effect. But just as we wouldn’t pair an exclamation point with a period, there’s no need to join it to a question mark. Decide on one terminal mark or another.
The interrobang (‽) keeps searching for acceptance, but its use isn’t widely accepted.
I know that we’ve all seen exclamation points and question marks stuck together; I’m not saying the use is an impossibility. I am suggesting that a better practice is to be decisive and choose one over the other. Decide whether your character is asking a question or making an emotional exclamation. If you need to show multiple emotions or reactions at the same time, use words, sentence structure, and even multiple sentences to convey your meaning. Fiction isn’t a newspaper story or an advertisement where you don’t have room for expansion and expression, where you can’t actually say what you mean using all the words necessary. Fiction’s a different animal; use all your tools to convey even the slightest nuances.
•  Don’t use both an exclamation point and a period at the end of a sentence.
“Give me back my dog!.” X
“Give me back my dog!”

•  Don’t use both an exclamation point and a comma in dialogue before a dialogue tag.
“I did it!,” Victor said. X
“I did it!” Victor said.
•  Don’t use both a comma and an exclamation point midsentence whether the text is dialogue or narrative.
The boy’s a thief!, she thought, upset again. X
The boy’s a thief! she thought, upset again.
•  Don’t pair exclamation points with a dash used to show dialogue that’s cut off.
“It can’t be missing—!” X
“It can’t be missing—“

•  Don’t imagine that every emotional sentence or emphatic utterance needs an exclamation point. Readers are quite able to glean emphasis from context and the words themselves.
•  Consider limiting your use of exclamation points to shorter sentences and phrases that can be spoken with a single breath. The mark is pointless for exclamations that peter out before they end or that are read without the emphasis of the exclamation point because it’s so far from the beginning of the sentence that the reader doesn’t know it’s there.
The exclamation point in this next example doesn’t work. It comes too late to be effective, and the speaker couldn’t possibly speak the entire sentence emphatically.
“She raced over the hill and jumped into the creek without hesitation—getting soaked up to her waist—and followed the trail into the trees on the other side, Darlene chasing her the whole way, promising retribution and bellowing threats with that loud voice of hers, like you know she does when she’s angry!”

Saluting those who suffer for science

What is the most important part of a scientific paper? Arguably, it’s the Results section– although there are those who might propose that it’s the authors (scientists after all are humans and appreciate having their names associated with the science – especially if it is deemed to be first-rate and published in a high impact journal). But, there is one section that’s deemed to be of such unimportance that it’s not worthy of scrutiny during peer review and usually survives intact as the authors intended. And that section should never be overlooked in reading a paper because, although it’s not the most important, it can often be the most revealing in terms of the background or context to the work that’s detailed elsewhere in the article. That section is the Acknowledgements, which comes into its own in papers such as that by Stephanie Crofts and Philip Anderson on cactus form-and-function.
Investigating how “the influence of cactus spine surface structure on puncture performance and anchoring ability is tuned for ecology”, the enterprising duo examined the puncturing and anchoring ability of the spines of six species of cactus. Why?
Well, according to the Introduction, cactus spines appear similar to porcupine quills, and, since the biomechanics of the latter as defensive mechanisms have been previously tested, but those of the former have not, they thought it was about time that the plant-like porcupines are subject to the same degree of scrutiny. Which all seems like sufficient justification to me.
They duly carried out the necessary tests which included perforating chicken and pork products with cactus spines to test such important properties as the plant protuberances’ penetrative power, and difficulty in their removal (for a graphic image of this technique, see Jennifer Leman’s article).
I won’t give away the results here because this news item is really about the Acknowledgements section, that oft-overlooked gem of science writing (which so often reveals the science practitioners human side). It is often said that artists suffer for their art; seemingly, both Croft and Anderson suffered for their science as we can infer from the last sentence of the paper’s Acknowledgement, which simply states “Finally, we thank the makers of the Swiss Army Knife for including tweezers on their classic knife.” Ouch!
A less painful piece of cactus-related research is provided by Chang Li et al. who report the “fog harvesting of a bioinspired nanocone-decorated 3D fiber [sic.] network”. Inspired and informed both by spider webs and cactus spines they’ve developed a structure that can effectively harvest water from fog (“tiny water droplets suspended in the air”). Although the specifics of this biomimetic solution may differ to that found in nature, the overall effect and mechanism is similar to water-abstraction by desert-dwelling plants in arid, but fog-frequented, places world-wide.
An aspiration for the work is that it will be of benefit as part of an agricultural irrigation system in water-deficient countries, where fog-collection schemesare being considered as ways of alleviating water-scarcity issues. For more on the moisture-harvesting abilities of plants – and animals (we must keep the zoosensitive readership happy), we recommend Malik et al.’s topical review.

The ever-mischievous Mr Cuttings wonders if this was actually predicted last millennium, by ‘Tyneside’s favourite band’ Lindisfarne in their song ‘Fog on the Tyne’. Everybody interprets the last word to be the name of the mighty river Tyne in the north-east of England. Maybe we’ve been getting it wrong all these years. What if the ‘tyne’ referred to is in fact tine, the name for a prong of a fork? Which ‘pointy thing’ can be likened to a … cactus spine. However, and much like the issue with the quatrains of Nostradamus, it’s only after an event has come to pass that any ‘prediction’ can be understood. Which makes it little use as a prediction. Sorry, this is just ‘end-of-term’ foolishness from Mr C – the reason for which is provided by the next, final, plant cutting.

Am I Possessive?

Writer’s group? Writers’ group? Writers group?
Ever struggle over the inclusion of an apostrophe when two nouns appear next to one another? Maybe you’ve written something like writing group to save yourself the hassle of figuring out which option is correct.
It’s likely that at some point we’ve all asked whether or not an apostrophe was appropriate for the first noun when two nouns are paired. And the uncertainty is often greatest when the first word is a plural ending in S.
We know that we add an apostrophe to show possession or ownership with nouns: John’s dog, the school’s mascot, her parents’ mistakes. But if a word isn’t possessive, does it sometimes get an apostrophe anyway?
Short answer: Yes. The genitive case uses apostrophes to show relationships or associations between words. Showing possession or ownership is just one use of the genitive.
So are there times when an apostrophe isn’t needed for paired nouns?
Short answer: Yes. When the first noun is operating as an adjective.

Attributive vs. Possessive Nouns
The choice between apostrophe and no apostrophe would be easy if the possessive was actually always truly possessive. But what we commonly call the possessive is actually the genitive case. The genitive helps us show possession, yet that’s not all it does. The genitive is also used to reflect measurement (including time)—five days’ worth of dirty laundry, a day’s drive, one dollar’s worth of penny candy, a month’s salary. We also use the genitive to show not possession or ownership but source.
Consider this sentence: We all marveled over Natalie’s painting.
Natalie’s painting could be owned by her, it could have been painted by her, or it could be a painting of her. If the painting was created by Natalie, the word Natalie’s shows source.
If Natalie is the subject matter of the painting, for clarity we might write something such as we marveled over Marco’s painting of Natalie. But we could and do say Natalie’s painting, and given the context, others would understand what was meant.
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You might have heard the dilemma between the choice of an apostrophe and no apostrophe framed as attributive vs. possessive.
When an adjective comes before a noun, we call it an attributive adjective. So when you’re trying to decide about an apostrophe for the first noun in a multinoun pair, you need to know whether the first noun is being used in one of the genitive senses, often as a possessive, or as an attributive adjective.
We’ve already looked at a few possessive noun pairs (John’s dog, school’s mascot, parents’ mistakes). Let’s look now at some attributive adjectives. In this grouping, the adjectives in the first three sentences are simply adjectives placed before nouns; in the final three sentences, nouns are used as adjectives. I included both so that you can see that nouns being used as attributive adjectives function like other adjectives.
The blue moon was bright.
An old wagon had been abandoned in the yard.
Thomas played with the misshapen kumquat
He claimed that a dog owner was different from a cat owner.
Our employee advocate was the owner’s son.
She told me I had chicken legs.
In the final three examples, we can clearly see that there’s no need for an apostrophe for the first noun in any of the pairs. The first noun is being used as an adjective in the same manner that the adjectives in the first three examples are used as adjectives.
However, we can modify the sentences and create the need for the possessive and thus the need for an apostrophe as well.
That dog’s owner is also a cat lover.
The employees‘ advocate didn’t do much to help the censured employees.
The chicken’s legs were uneven.
But what if the choice isn’t so clear cut? In some cases, we might want to consider what we know about adjectives.
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Are you familiar with the royal order of adjectives? Adjectives come in different categories, and the categories usually fall in a particular order when multiple adjectives modify a noun.
The mouse.
The pink mouse.
The pretty pink mouse.
Pink pretty the mouse. X
Adjectives in one of the categories are called qualifiers. They are usually nouns (sometimes gerunds), and they sit right next to the noun being modified. These qualifiers are nouns functioning as attributive adjectives. A few examples—
wedding dress
staff meeting
evening gown
town council
What’s important to remember about qualifiers is that in the order of adjectives, they are the final adjective out of a group of adjectives, the one closest to the noun they modify. The qualifier and the noun it modifies are a pair that can’t be separated, not if we intend to keep the same meaning; we don’t put other adjectives between the qualifier and the noun. Think of the pair as a compound or a unit. So we can say the blue wedding dress, but we can’t say the wedding blue dress. We can say the crooked town council but not the town crooked council.
When we’re talking possessives, however, we can insert an adjective between the noun pairs.
That dog’s irate owner is also a cat lover.
The employees’ worthless advocate didn’t do much to help the censured employees.
The chicken’s skinny legs were uneven.
Three of the sentences in the next example don’t work because I’ve inserted an adjective between the qualifier and the noun it’s modifying. The new adjectives can go before the noun pair, but they can’t go between.
He said that a dog irate owner was different from a cat owner. X
He said that an irate dog owner . . .
Our employee worthless advocate was the owner’s son. X
Our worthless employee advocate . . .
She told me I had chicken skinny legs. X
She told me I had skinny chicken legs.
So if you’re having trouble deciding about an apostrophe for a pair of nouns, temporarily add an adjective between them. If the new phrase doesn’t make sense, you’ve got an attributive adjective that must fall immediately before the noun it modifies. Put other adjectives before the noun pair if you want to, but don’t put any between the two nouns.
The wedding ice-blue dress cost more than my car. X
The wedding exquisite dress cost more than my car. X
The exquisite ice-blue silk wedding dress cost more than my car.
If the attributive isn’t right for your needs or doesn’t fit, add an apostrophe to the first noun and put as many other modifiers between the nouns as you like.
The wedding’s cost led to her parents’ divorce.
The wedding’s exorbitant and bank-breaking cost led to her parents’ divorce.
Depending on what you’re trying to convey, you might need the attributive or you might need the possessive. By adding other modifiers between the nouns, you can determine which option is called for. (You don’t need to use additional modifiers in your actual sentences to make this work. Adding them temporarily is simply a test to help you determine possessive or attributive.)
Both of the sentences in the next example are valid, although they don’t say the same thing. One uses council as an attributive adjective while the other uses council as a possessive. The first sentence would be more accurate in some circumstances while the second would better fit other situations.
The next council meeting will be on Monday.
The council’s next meeting will be on Monday.

Nouns Ending in S
Many attributive nouns will be singular, so you may not have trouble deciding between apostrophe and no apostrophe in most cases. Yet even though you’ll likely have fewer opportunities to use a plural as the first noun, there are some plurals that will be attributive. So what about nouns that end in S, specifically plurals? How do those work? Are they attributive or possessive? Apostrophe or no apostrophe?
With a few exceptions, they work the same way singular nouns work. Consider the following examples. I’ve included examples of singular nouns for comparison. (P=possessive, A=attributive)
The Giants’ pitcher was late to the game. (P)
The team’s pitcher was late to the game. (P)
The Giants’ new pitcher was late to the game. (P)
The team’s new pitcher was late to the game. (P)
Giants pitcher Johnny Johns was late to the game. (A)
Team pitcher Johnny Johns was late to the game. (A)
Giants new pitcher Johnny Johns was late to the game. X
Team new pitcher Johnny Johns was late to the game. X

Consider the name of a band that ends in S, whether singular or plural.
Kansas’s songs are all the rage today. (P)
Foo Fighters’ songs are all the rage today. (P)
Queen’s songs are all the rage today. (P)
Kansas’s old songs are all the rage today. (P)
Foo Fighters’ old songs are all the rage today. (P)
Queen’s old songs are all the rage today. (P)
Old Kansas songs are all the rage today. (A)
Old Foo Fighters songs are all the rage today. (A)
Old Queen songs are all the rage today. (A)
Kansas old songs are all the rage these days. X
Foo Fighters old songs are all the rage today. X
Queen old songs are all the rage these days. X

A few more—
Queen’s lead singer died way too young. (P)
Foo Fighters’ lead singer owns a Tesla. (P)
Queen frontman Freddie Mercury was 45 when he died. (A)
Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl owns a Tesla. (A)
The Beatles’ earliest songs aren’t all universally loved. (P)
I love every Beatles song. (A)
If you have trouble deciding between attributive and possessive when the first noun of the noun pair is a plural or ends in an S, substitute a singular noun to see how it would be written.
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According to the Associated Press Stylebook, we don’t use an apostrophe when that first word ends in an S if it’s a descriptive phrase. As a tip, the AP Stylebook says that if a longer form of the phrase uses for or by rather than of, an apostrophe usually wouldn’t be needed in the shorter version.
an association for lawyers
a lawyers association
But if for, by, and of aren’t helpful, definitely temporarily insert adjectives between the two nouns as a test.
The Chicago Manual of Style has a bit of a different take. Other than for proper names (including names of companies), they advocate for using the apostrophe unless the intention is clearly not possessive. I suggest reversing that and checking first to see if the noun is being used in the attributive sense.
CMoS would have us write farmers’ market; I would argue for farmers market. Just as I would argue for writers conference, nurses station, and ladies room. I can’t see any reason to change the pattern simply because the first noun is plural rather than singular.
As we have seen, company names, band names, and the names of ball teams can be used as both attributive and possessive, even when they end in S. The same is true of members of professions or associations of people. I’ve included adjectives before the noun pairs in the next examples so you can easily see how these pairs would be attributive.
a [new] physicians center
the [very dry] plumbers putty
the [oldest] lawyers association
the [annual] writers conference
an [all-male] alumni association
the [largest] bricklayers union
a [comprehensive] voters guide
a [violent] believers uprising
[an active] consumers lobby
the [outspoken] soft drinks industry
Just because a word can be used as an attributive noun doesn’t mean that it should always or should only be used that way. And just because a plural can be used as an attributive, that doesn’t mean that it—or the singular version of the same word—can’t be used as a possessive. I’ve included these examples so you can see some options and instances when a plural noun can be used in the attributive sense. I don’t mean to imply that the same words can’t also be used in the possessive sense or can’t be singular and attributive as well.
The consumers’ newest lobby focuses on vitamins.
An updated voter guide is in the mail.

My Harley Accident

While riding my Harley, I swerved to avoid hitting a deer, lost control and landed in a ditch, severely banging my head. Dazed and confused I crawled out of the ditch to the edge of the road when a shiny new convertible pulled up with a very beautiful woman who asked,

“Are you okay?” As I looked up, I noticed she was wearing a low cut blouse with cleavage to die for.

“I’m okay I think,” I replied as I pulled myself up to the side of the
car to get a closer look.

She said, “Get in and I’ll take you home so I can clean and bandage
that nasty scrape on your head.”

“That’s nice of you,” I answered, “but I don’t think my wife will like
me doing that!”

“Oh, come now, I’m a nurse,” she insisted. “I need to see if you have
any more scrapes and then treat them properly.”

Well, she was really pretty and very persuasive. Being sort of shaken
and weak, I agreed, but repeated, “I’m sure my wife won’t like this.”

We arrived at her place which was just few miles away and, after a
couple of cold beers and the bandaging, I thanked her and said, “I
feel a lot better but I know my wife is going to be really upset so
I’d better go now.”

“Don’t be silly!” she said with a smile. “Stay for a while. She won’t
know anything. By the way, where is she?”

“Still in the ditch with the Harley, I guess.”