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Showing posts from October, 2008

Grammar & Punctuation – The “Rules” are Meant to be Broken

Language is not static. Language evolves over time. Words come en vogue (or are invented) and some words become passé or even archaic. As language changes, so do the “rules” of its use. For example: someone says to you that “every sentence ends with a period and that rule will never change.” Oh, really? That’s news to me! Here are examples where a period does not end a sentence: It ends with a question mark It ends with an exclamation point It ends with a colon “Never start a sentence with a conjunction.” But why not? This can be a personal preference or a “house rule” for a publisher or publication, but it is not a law and if you break it you go to jail. My husband, who also edits, follows this “rule” but I don’t. We still manage to have a happy, loving marriage despite this difference in our editing preference. “Sentence fragments are wrong.” Baloney. What kind of writing are you doing? I would say this is true for academic and professional writing, but in fiction writing,

Story Length Terminology and Guidelines

What do you do if an editor asks you to cut your story to “Drabble” length? A Drabble is a story of exactly 100 words, so this scenario is unlikely unless the publication you’re dealing with specialises in this type of work. Internet and electronic publications are less constricted by story length than print publications are, so you will often find their guidelines for length are fairly broad. Some may specify only the minimum or maximum word count. Terminology for short stories Many contests are for shorter stories rather than novel or novella-length works. The term “Flash Fiction” applies generally to stories of around 1,000 words, but is often applied to anything between 200 and 2,000 words. Lately in many cases, the term Flash Fiction has incorporated the “Short-short story” (500-2,000 words) guideline and this term may begin to fall away. A “Short Story” is usually considered to be between 1,000 and 7,500 words. In years past “Novellette” took the 7,500 to 15,000 word sl

A Character is a Character

I started writing short stories. From there I slipped into novels, and now I find myself writing television dramas. These transitions were not as difficult as one might have thought; it was more a tenuous slip into places that were still very familiar. The main reason that writing short stories, like writing novels, like writing TV scripts seems so similar is that it is all about your characters; knowing your characters and what sort of mischief they might be able to get up to. Before I start writing a novel, I make an A3 size map of my characters’ relationships with each other. From there, I put together my descriptions of the characters, a page for each to start out, duly filed in a binder. I do the same thing when beginning a television series- in this case television folk refer to them as character bibles. As your plot moves along your characters will reveal things about themselves. Each titbit dropped along the way should be duly noted on their character bible, if not somewhere

Six Spooktacular Ways to Improve Your Writing

'Tis Halloween when all things go bump in the night - except your writing, of course. You certainly don't want your words to cause readers to throw your pages or book on the desk (or across the room) and depart. How to make readers want to read more, rather than run for the hills like a mob chasing Frankenstein's monster? Here are a few tips to "Spooktacular" writing. 1 Don't dress up. Costumes are great for parties, but bad for your writing. Don't use flowery language or words with too many syllables. Keep it simple. Readers want to enjoy a story, not have to hunt for a dictionary. 2. Set the mood. Just as music can set the mood, so words can make a reader feel a part of the scene. Hook them by letting them use their senses to follow the character along in their imagination. 3. Give out treats. If your book is a mystery, don't trick or cheat your readers by making the villain someone who just pops up at the end of your story. Treat your reader

To "Was" or Not to "Was"

There is a lot said about avoiding the use of was in narrative because it can sometimes be a sign of passive writing. The danger there is that some writers avoid using that simple verb entirely. They hear in a critique group or in a workshop at a conference that they should get rid of passive verbs and replace them with active verbs. In many cases, that advice is right on, but there are times when using was is proper. That usage denotes an ongoing action or activity, something that started before the character arrived on scene and will continue when the character leaves. For example, “By eight o’clock preparations were underway in St. Peter’s Square for the general audience. Vatican work crews were erecting folding chairs and temporary metal dividers in the esplanade in front of the Basilica, and security personnel were placing magnetometers along the Colonnade.” (Excerpt from The Messenger by Daniel Silva.) In this same scene, the central character, Gabriel, stops at a caf

The Spice of Variety

I style-edit a lot of novels. Whether dealing with a romance, mystery, sci fi, or literary work, I check the same basic elements. Sentence structure and verbs are two of the most important. If all the sentences in a paragraph begin the same way, the writer needs to mix things up. Nothing puts a reader to sleep faster than a paragraph in which sentences start with nothing but “Jennifer saw,” “Jennifer walked,” and “Jennifer ran.” But a series of sentences that begin with gerunds or other constructions distracts even more completely. For example, “Seeing Lori across the room, Jennifer thought she looked stunning. Walking over to Lori, Jennifer put her hand on her shoulder. Running her eyes up and down Lori’s well-toned body, Jennifer envied her.” Sentence openings are important, but writers also need to vary the type of sentences they use. Novels made up primarily of simple sentences, a la Hemingway, often come across as too choppy, rough, and abrupt. Example: “Jennifer saw Lori

Growth

As an editor for a couple of publishing houses, I have the opportunity to work with some authors on a regular basis and build a relationship. It makes my job both easier and harder. It makes it easier because, as we develop our working relationship, the authors are able to understand my job is not to fold, staple or mutilate their work, but to help them polish it to its finest gleam. We are a team, dedicated to putting out the best possible book. Those authors work with me, listen to the suggestions I offer, engage in a give-and-take discussion and improve their basic skills with each manuscript submitted. It's not very often that the issue is the writer can't tell a story -- but remember, I'm lucky in that I have an acquisitions editor ahead of me reading the slush pile and sending me only what's contracted! So, I have that advantage. And, especially when working with someone new, I make sure to give explanations of why I've done something -- it's a misplaced

Christmas Before Halloween?

Good Grief, Christmas decorations in the stores before Halloween! Can't we enjoy this Season first before rushing to the next one? My Fall decorations seem out of place somehow, what with all the Christmas lights popping up in the neighborhood. Soon I'll need to get my Christmas card list updated. I wouldn't want to send those cards out too late, say, maybe around Christmas. You may ask What does her griping have to do about writing? A lot. When you write, pay attention to sequence. In other words, put the action before the reaction. Don't have someone cry or laugh before first showing a reason for that emotion. Wrong: Mary wiped the tears from her eyes. The mums reminded her of mother who'd always loved flowers. Right: The mums reminded Mary of mother, who'd always loved flowers. Mary wiped the tears from her eyes. Likewise, don't give away the plot right away or you'll ruin the fun for the reader. Spread an information trail first and let the re

Editor Selection: Emerging Authors Want To Know!

Dear Exalted Editors, So I've taken a look at my grammar and my formatting. I'm even (a little) less scared of editors than I used to be. Now I'd like to know how I go about finding the right editor for me! There are so many choices out there. I can pay for a one-on-one session with an editor at a conference I'm attending, or search the internet, or even get in touch with one of you! Can you suggest any resources for locating good editors? Next question: once I've found an editor (and I've met some great ones through this site already), how do I know if he or she is right for me? Some of these editing services can get kind of pricey, and I'm always worried about shady dealings on the Internet. Also, should I use different editors for different projects? Signed, Desperately Seeking Revision Maryann: First of all, you should know that there are differences in editors. The ones you might meet at a conference are usually acquisition editors. They are

Your Turn

You're mailing a manuscript to an editor or agent. How careful are you? Find one mistake and comment on it. If all mistakes are found, comment on your favorite or one not mentioned. Hear goes: Its two late to correct you're manuscript after you've submitted it, so be careful to check and correct mistakes a head of time. Did you decide not to number the pages because you couldn't figure out how? That's a lovely font, kind of like script. It's not the one asked for in the guidelines, but the editor or agent is sure to love it's look and also appreciate the lovely scent of the perfume you sprayed on the page. Did you leave out little word? Are their any words that spellcheck says are okay, but the spelling is incorrect for the context in yore manuscript? Did your manuscript sit on the kitchen table and get all greasy before you put it in the male? Did you remember to tell the publisher how great your manuscript is? Since you didn't number the pag

Repeat After Me: Ridding Your Writing of Repetition

It sneaks up on you. Even if you don't notice, others will. John McCain gave us a perfect (verbal) example in the October 9 presidential debate: "my friends." Is there a comic - or blogger - who has not spoofed McCain's repetition? So maybe McCain is an extreme example, but it is easy to overuse a word or a description without realizing it. In a writing class, my instructor pointed out that I had written the phrase "you're so silly" in dialogue four times over six pages. How did I miss that? Another example from my own work was that I repeated the word refrigerator in a scene where this kitchen appliance was being repossessed. So then I tried substituting with the descriptive phrase "avocado-colored rectangular box." That didn't work at all! My scene finally improved when I restructured my sentences so that I wasn't so dependant on one word. Repetitive word use can kill good work in any type of writing - from novels to memoir to

Perception is Part of Point of View

Perception plays a huge role in point of view. How we perceive things depends on many factors. Even people in the same family, brought up in the same neighborhood and country will look at things differently. That's because many variables enter into their lives, one being birth order. No matter how parents try to be fair, a second or third child is not treated exactly as the first. Also, other contacts, such as teachers, friends, enemies, even events, can shape thoughts. Likewise, each author perceives things in his or her own way. Such views have a way of sneaking into books. When you write, be careful you are perceiving the universe from your character's point of view and not your own. Go through your manuscript and elimate places where your point of view has slipped in, unless you actually want your character to be a mirror of yourself and not a person in his or own right. When you've done that, scan your manuscript again. This time make sure your characters differ in

Things That Drive an Editor Crazy

I’ve been editing for a long time and am still amazed at how often I see common mistakes repeated over and over again. For instance: Fred walked out, taking the file with him . You don’t need ‘with him’. If he took the file, it’s with him, DUH!! Or the sentence could be rewritten to make it a little more visual. Fred grabbed the file and walked out . Those gray eyes of his stared right at her. This is an incredibly popular phraseology used in romance novels, and I wince every time I read it. As if he would be looking at her with anyone else’s eyes. Please note that I am not denigrating romance novels. I have read many that are wonderful, well-crafted stories. Unfortunately, I have also received many to review that I can’t even read past the first chapter because the writing relies on tired, worn out wordage. How I long for some fresh, clever word usage. Sally shrugged her shoulders . What else would she shrug? Harry nodded his head. As opposed to his elbow? Sam found himself standing

Things That Drive An Editor Crazy

I’ve been editing for a long time and am still amazed at how often I see common mistakes repeated over and over again. For instance: Fred walked out, taking the file with him. You don’t need ‘with him’. If he took the file, it’s with him, DUH!! Or the sentence could be rewritten to make it a little more visual. Fred grabbed the file and walked out. Those gray eyes of his stared right at her. This is an incredibly popular phraseology used in romance novels, and I wince every time I read it. As if he would be looking at her with anyone else’s eyes. Please note that I am not denigrating romance novels. I have read many that are wonderful, well-crafted stories. Unfortunately, I have also received many to review that I can’t even read past the first chapter because the writing relies on tired, worn out wordage. How I long for some fresh, clever word usage. Sally shrugged her shoulders . What else would she shrug? Harry nodded his head. As opposed to his elbow? Sam found himsel

Removing Unwanted Formatting From Your Manuscript

The time has come for you to print off a copy of your manuscript to send out to an editor, but something's gone screwy with Word. Surprise, surprise. Your quick glance through the document found a word that should have been in italics, but wasn't. So you corrected that, only to have your entire document converted into italicised text. Then there's those pesky curly quotes that won't go away. You know your editor wants them straight up, no twist. Here's how to troubleshoot some of the trickier formatting woes. Automatically Updating Styles MS Word's formatting tools have a feature for automatically updating the formatting as you work. This can be very handy if you're using it for a specific style that has a single function (like making notes), but it can also be a right pain if you forget that it is turned on and you start fiddling with the formatting. This is the feature you need to turn off if you find your whole document changing formatting when yo

Evil Editors: Emerging Authors Want To Know!

Dear Exalted Editors, I've met a couple of editors in real life. They seem nice enough. And I spend a bunch of time online with editors. Not once have they given me anything to fear. However, when I start to picture my manuscript ending up on an editor's desk at a publishing house, my imagination runs away with me... I see an enormous dragon shimmering in the torchlight. Her purple and black scales glitter as she tilts her head from side to side, regarding the several large slush piles on her desk. She cackles and lets out a whip of fire from her jaws, engulfing several stacks of precious manuscripts in flames. Next, she picks a document from the pile and glances at it. "'It was a bright day in June...' Passive voice in the first sentence? You'd better give up your publication dreams, because you're hopeless. Mwahahaha!" With two chomps of her sharp teeth, the manuscript disappears. She turns the heap of paper over to a pack of interns and tell

Reference Books

I have several shelves of reference books in my writing library. All came highly recommended, most have gone unread. Books on writing (character development, plot development, the art of storytelling...), books on editing, books on the business of writing (query letters, synopses, finding an agent, finding a publisher, etc., etc.), books on marketing. They used to mock me from across the room. "Stop typing," they'd shout. "You can't write a decent story until you've read us." There was a time when I caught myself using these books as an excuse to not write. I told myself I needed to learn more, read one more book, take one more class. But that approach didn't get words on the page. That's why those books are on a bookshelf on the other side of the room. I've taped a sheet of paper to the front of the bookcase to remind me not to fall into that trap again. That sheet of paper contains Heinlein's Rules of writing: 1) You Must Write 2) Fi