Thursday, October 30, 2008

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

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Language is not static.

Language evolves over time. Words come en vogue (or are invented) and some words become passĂ© 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, sentence fragments are allowed and even encouraged.

“I write like this because this is my style.”

Well, if your “style” is crap—mission accomplished! Don’t be dragged into this prima donna-esque attitude when trying to define your “style” to your confused, long-suffering editor. Your editor may know more about grammar and punctuation than you do, but that doesn’t absolve you, as the author, from your responsibility in taking the time to learn the elements of fiction writing as well as the “rules” of grammar and punctuation.

“OK, Miss Know-It-All-Editor. One minute you say it’s fine to break the rules and the next minute you say I have to follow them. Just what are you trying to tell me?”

My point is simple. Before you break the “rules,” you must know the “rules.” Relying on the spelling/grammar check on your computer does not count. A word processing program will record what you want it to record. It cannot tell the difference between your writing “style” and the grammar and punctuation “rules” coded in its program.

When it comes to writing fiction, a lot of the “rules” we learned (or should have learned) in school can be bent, stretched, and even broken—when the author knows when and how to do it and does it to create a certain effect or mood.

If you want to be a successful (i.e.: published) author, and have editors love you, take time to learn the grammar and punctuation “rules” of your language. Or, instead of calling them “rules,” call them nuances because by applying certain “rules” of grammar or the use of one form of punctuation over another, your writing will have more depth and more meaning. Your writing will have a certain nuance. Unless you know these “rules,” you won’t know the ones you can use and the ones you can do without.

One thing I learned in my years of education is that many of the “rules” of grammar and punctuation have exceptions. You won’t know this if you only deal in absolutes or you haven’t taken the time to educate yourself of this fact. You must discover what works best for you when it comes to conveying your message in your writing and, hence, develop your style.

If your publisher or editor follows the “rules” of a certain style book, you will be good to follow the same if you wish to work with them in the future. If your editor wants you to change something that you are not comfortable with, you should be able to explain the reason why you want to keep that item as written. The editor may have misunderstood what you are trying to say and will make suggestions to make it clear. Then again, you could be wrong in your reasoning (shocking, I know) and your editor will explain the reason why. It’s a give and take process.

However, despite all of this, I think there is one rule we can all agree upon that gives us hope when it comes to the sins and transgressions made in the editing and writing process.

Pobody’s nerfect.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

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 slot and a “Novella” was between 15,000 and 40,000 words. However, many publications will specify guidelines for “short stories up to 15,000”, and the term “novelette” may be falling away also.

Guidelines for longer works

Novellas were quite popular in the first half of the twentieth century and writers didn’t risk an agent or publisher’s wrath by producing a book of only 40,000 words. Later, as publishers organised special rates with printers for standard length books, works falling outside the standard were less likely to be accepted until they’d been rewritten to suit the specifications.

Now, though, the publishing industry is slowly changing again, with the advancement of Print on Demand technology. It is possible that book length will be less important than it has been as books are printed as the orders come in, rather than being a risky investment in thousands of copies that may or may not sell.

The standard length for a genre or commercial fiction novel is 100,000 words. Literary fiction has more leeway and can range from 60,000 words to 150,000 words, and Fantasy has also broken out of the standard by allowing epic tomes of 200,000 words for just one book in a series. It stands to reason that to aim for the 100,000 word mark when you start writing or when you’re editing your novel, will give agents and publishers one less thing to count against you when considering your submission.

Even if you’re writing fantasy, work on the principle of being able to produce more words when the publisher asks for them, rather than enthusiastically presenting everything up front. While it is rare to see a standalone fantasy novel of 100,000 words, publishers take on less risk if the author is prepared to be flexible about the rest of the books in a series. If the first book is a failure and the others can stand as separate and different books, something can still be salvaged. If the first is a success, the others can more safely be presented as a continuing series.

Elsa Neal

Elsa Neal is a writer based in Melbourne, Australia. She offers a Peer Critique Service specialising in full length novels. Browse through the resources for writers available at her website or follow her writing insights at her Fictional Life Blog.
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Monday, October 27, 2008

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 down the road you will find yourself with an adult character talking on the phone to their mother who died when she was seven. Your character bibles are vital to keep your characters alive in your head, on the page, or on the screen.

What sort of things must be included in the character bible?
Here’s a place to start:

• Full name
• Age
• Family relationships
• Strange quirks
• Occupation
• Friends
• Hobbies
• Physical characteristics
• Relationships with other characters
• What they like
• What they don’t like
• Moral issues
• Where they live

Get a basic outline down before you write anything. Get to know these people. As you write, make sure you add any detail that comes out. Does her ex-boyfriend now have a name? What day did she get fired? What did she say was the name of her favourite teddy when she was a girl?

All of these details are important for you to understand your characters’ motivations. They are not details that need to be used in the script, though. I have written a whole series without a main character’s surname being revealed. I knew it, but it just never came up. Don’t clutter your writing with information that doesn’t move your plot forward. The point of the character bible is for the writer to get to know and keep track of each character, it is not the place to find plots. Make your characters three dimensional and they will build the plot with you. Another benefit of good character bibles at the start is that editing and rewrites caused by conflicting facts will be minimised, and which writer doesn’t appreciate less edits?

Lauri Kubuitsile is a full time write living in Botswana. She writes anything that requires words to be placed on a page in some semblance of order, but her love is fiction. She blogs on just about anything that enters her head at Thoughts from Botswana.

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Sunday, October 26, 2008

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 readers with a story and clues that play fair. Write scenes that are a treat to a reader.

4. Share the fun. There are always those partygoers who choose to attend a costume party, but won't dress in costume. Welcome them anyway. Give them a prop - a scarf, mask or funny headband to wear. Do the opposite in your writing - don't depend on a prop to hold the story together. Write for fun, but write tight; delete unnecessary words or scenes. Keep moving the story forward.

5. Find your theme. Let's say you prefer to write and read mysteries, but a new story simply won't fit that framework. Don't make it. Keep your writing fresh by trying your hand at a new theme or genre. Solve a crime set in another world. Substitute your character for a new person or creature. Don't be afraid to try something new or take your writing in a whole new direction.

6. Satisfy your sweet tooth. Halloween is all about candy. Have a few favorites, but don't overdo it. The same is true with writing - we all have our favorites, the pet words that we tend to use over and over again. Strengthen your writing by using the Find feature in Word to check the number of times you've used a certain word, then see how you can replace it. There's nothing wrong with those words, but like candy, a little goes a long way.

Christine Verstraete likes Halloween and couldn’t resist adding some spooky elements to her book,
Searching For A Starry Night, A Miniature Art Mystery. See some amazing Halloween miniatures this month at her Candid Canine blog.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

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 cafĂ©. “Gabriel drank two cups of coffee and read the morning newspapers.” Both action verbs because this is happening now, to this character, and will stop when he does something else.

Before the difference was explained to me, I would try very hard to eliminate all uses of that dreaded word and wondered why it seemed to make the narrative awkward. When it is used sparingly and properly, the narrative is smooth and one almost has to stop to realize the word is there.


Maryann Miller is an author and freelance editor. Information about her books, her editing services, and her blogs can be found on her Web site at

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Friday, October 24, 2008

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 across the room, and she looked stunning. Jennifer walked over to Lori and put her hand on her shoulder. Then Jennifer ran her eyes up and down Lori’s well-toned body.” Dick and Jane and Spot and Puff.

Conversely, novels that contain mostly long, complex sentences are often difficult to read and comprehend. Think Faulkner.

Example: “When Jennifer saw Lori, who looked stunning, across the room, she walked over to her and put her hand on her shoulder, running her eyes up and down Lori’s well-toned body, probably the result of a daily visit to the gym, where she obviously lifted weights and swam several miles in the new natatorium that had opened just last year, to the delight of the citizens of Minneapolis.”

A string of such sentences can discourage even the most dedicated reader.

The key word in most sentences is the verb, so I check to make sure each one is effective. Is it strong and does it precisely convey the intended action as well as the emotion that the action should express?

Weak verbs: “Cindy moved across the room. Cindy made her way across the room.”
Stronger verb: “Cindy walked across the room.” (Rather neutral)
Strong verbs: “Cindy glided. Cindy stomped. Cindy strode. Cindy wandered.”

Of course, a book with all strong verbs can tire the reader, but a book with too many weak verbs can confuse the reader and lull her into a deep sleep. Variety is a writer’s most useful spice.

About ninety percent of the verbs in a novel should be active ones, because they are clearer, shorter, and punchier. “Cindy walked into the room” definitely beats “The room was walked into by Cindy.”

Passive verbs such as the preceding are vague, long, and weak. They can be useful at times, but only if the writer knows how to handle them.

When writers examine the type of sentences and verbs they use, they can usually understand and strengthen their writing style.


Shelley is a native Texan who writes, teaches, and edits--not necessarily in that order. Other than recently dodging hurricanes, she enjoys retirement and posts a poem weekly at

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Wednesday, October 22, 2008


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 modifier, or tense issues in a paragraph, or run-on sentences (which I find are occurring more and more!)

But as we've developed a trusting relationship I've even had some authors contact me to ask how to handle a particular issue as they're working -- knowing they've identified an area they need to put extra effort and need an answer to a how/why/what question, push their own boundaries or skills a bit, or learn what the "house" rules are.

My job also becomes harder when a writer just keeps "cranking" out the same stories, with the same punctuation errors, same sentence structure problems, same passive writing, or whatever issue or issues that author has. It can be frustrating for an editor working with an author who has not made progress in learning the difference between there/their, peak/peek or who considers the following a correct sentence:

He walked to the store, he needed milk.

I keep chipping away, including the explanations, but it takes me much more time as an editor, so that cuts into my income because I have to spend the extra time on the repetitive errors. That means I might not volunteer to work with that author again after a while, knowing it'll take me longer to get the manuscript edited, and thus, since I work on a per unit billing process, rather than an hourly rate, I'd rather do more units and earn more!

Bottom line, though, is I love what I do, the interaction with authors, the chance to read some wonderful fiction before it hits the shelves and keep learning because, yep, editors are always learning as well.

Libby McKinmer
Romance with an edge

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Christmas Before Halloween?

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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 readers follow it to the conclusion.

When you're writing a mystery, you're allowed, even encouraged, to drop in clues ahead of time. Later, the reader and main character can solve the puzzles together.

In other words, to use that sad overused cliche', Don't put the cart before the horse! Or maybe I should say, Don't put Christmas before Halloween!



Morgan Mandel

Saturday, October 18, 2008

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 the ones that will hopefully buy your wonderful book once it is ready to go out into the marketplace. You pay a fee for the right to pitch your book to them. Some conferences charge an extra fee for the session with the editor, other cons have that fee built in to the overall conference fee. Before you get to that point, however, your book should go through an edit for content and then another one for copy editing, which is primarily proofing the manuscript for typos, grammar and spelling errors. Some editors are better at one than the other. My suggestion in deciding on one to work with is to ask for references. Most editors have them, and some of my clients have given me written references that are on my website.

Fees vary, and some editors are awfully proud of their work. In some cases, that is justified because of a wide range of experience, but there are always the few out there ready to take advantage of an eager writer. I suggest you have conversations with a prospective editor to determine his or her qualifications, approach to the editing process, and to see if you click on a personal level. Going through the editing process can get emotional at times, and you need to work with someone who understands that and can be responsive to you.

Lillie: As Maryann suggested, checking editors' references and asking for referrals from other writers are two good ways to find editors. However, just because an editor was right for another writer doesn't mean she's right for you and your book. I recommend you talk (in person or by phone) with two or three prospective editors. You want to know that the editor has the technical skills you need, that she is familiar with your genre, that she will provide the kind and level of editing you want, and that her price is affordable for you. Most importantly, though, you want to be sure that you and the editor are comfortable with each other and that she will improve your writing without destroying your voice. I've covered these points in more detail in Working with a Professional Editor.

Many editors offer a free sample edit. I will edit the first few pages of a manuscript at no charge. You can make sure I'm doing what you expect, and I can determine how much work is involved to quote you a price. Ask editors you are considering whether they will give a sample of their work.

The right editor will make your work sound like you—only better.

Emma Larkins has a dream: to make a living as a published author. Her publication credits include a story titled Midsummer Disc Dreams in the outdoor literary magazine, In the Mist, and an article called The Writer's Passion on the Feminine Aspects website. For more information, check out her blog and her website.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Your Turn

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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 pages, maybe you should fasten them together with a giant staple.

The publisher has plenty of envelopes. You don't need to send one of your own for the response. Your manuscript will be excepted anyway and youll get that phone call any day very soon.


Morgan Mandel, Author of the Chicago mystery, Two Wrongs and the romantic comedy, Girl of My Dreams. For more from Morgan, see

Monday, October 13, 2008

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 press releases. One of the most over used words ever in press releases is "excited." How many times have you read "XYZ Company is excited to announce..."?

What you can do to avoid this:
  • Have friends read your writing. This may seem like a no-brainer but it works. People who know you well may be able to catch your favorite oft-repeated phrases (like "awesome" or "that's funny") if they spill into your writing.
  • Have people you don't know well read your work. Some of the best writing buddies I have are not "friends." We love working together but it helps that we don't share the intimate details of our daily lives. It makes for good perspective-giving.
  • Read your work out loud. It's amazing what you can catch with your own ears. I recently met a writer who had nearly lost his voice because he'd spent the last two full days reading his manuscript aloud.
  • Trust your editor. If you work with or hire an editor, trust that he or she is there to help your writing be its best -- and has the skill to help you avoid "my friends."


Jesaka Long is a writer and editor for a coffee company by day and dedicates her non-cubicle hours to freelancing and pursuing her publishing goals. For more, check out her website and follow her on Twitter.

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Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Perception is Part of Point of View

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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 perceptions from each other, even if only in small ways, so the reader can tell one apart from the other.


Morgan Mandel

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

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 in the middle of… Was Sam lost? Much stronger to write: Sam stood in the middle of….

It was a picture of Madeline Smith, herself. Could it not just be a picture of Madeline Smith, period? Even my husband asked if the use of the reflexive pronoun was necessary, and he’s not an editor.

And don’t even get me started on all those dialogue attributives. Characters say their lines. They don’t cluck, snort, retort, purr, snigger, interject, bark, and my all time favorite, ejaculate. Most of the time the intent is in the dialogue itself, so there is no need to TELL the reader how the character spoke. Let the dialogue SHOW the reader. And if it doesn’t, the dialogue needs to be reworked until it does.

Also high on the list of things that make me pound my head on my keyboard is the overuse of adverbs. Again, that is often connected to dialogue and TELLS the reader how the person was speaking as opposed to SHOWING them, which doesn’t mean that adverbs should be avoided entirely. A well-placed adverb can be very effective, but they lose their punch when every other line has one.

Sometimes I will have a client say, “But I see that all the time in books I read.”


Weak writing is weak writing no matter who is getting published. Some people don’t care. They just dash off a piece of work, grab the money and run. But I believe we owe our readers more than that. Developing the story and getting it down on paper – or stored on your hard drive – is only the first step in writing a book. The next couple of steps are crucial and infinitely more difficult – at least I think so. Rewriting and editing to find just the right words and phrases can lift an average book into the realm of good and maybe even great.


Maryann Miller is an author, journalist, screenwriter and editor. You can check out her work and her editing fees at her Web site

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Monday, October 6, 2008

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 you only wanted to change a single word or section.

  • In the TaskPane (Word 2002/03), select Styles and Formatting. (Or click Format, Styles and Formatting.)
  • Select the style (Normal or Body Text) that you use as your main document style.
  • Click the down arrow next to that style. Select Modify. At the bottom right, uncheck the box that says Automatically Update.

    (In Word 2007, use the Styles Dialog Box Launcher to make alterations to the style.)
Removing AutoFormatting

A manuscript can be made to look very pretty in Word, with curly quotes, long dashes, and ellipses that make it look like it's ready to be bound into a book. However, your publisher usually doesn't want "pretty", so all that fancy formatting needs to come out.

To turn off the AutoFormatting feature:

  • Tools >> AutoCorrect Options… >> AutoFormat Tab
  • Under Replace, uncheck the boxes for Straight Quotes With Smart Quotes, and Hyphens With Dash.
  • Now click the AutoCorrect Tab. Find the entry for the ellipsis.
  • Now you have to decide whether you use the formatted version of the ellipsis. That is, do you sometimes publish e-books or create printed material yourself? If you do, you may want to keep this entry and simply use the Find and Replace feature described below.
    However, if constantly correcting the ellipsis is driving you batty and you only ever use Word to create manuscripts, you can hit Delete Entry.
Find and Replace Formatting

If you turned off the AutoFormatting before you started typing anything, you don't need to do anything further.

For existing documents, however, you now need to use Find and Replace to change the quotes and dashes back to their unformatted style.

    Start at the beginning of your document.
  • Edit >> Replace
  • Under Find What, type in the quotation mark you use
  • Under Replace With, type the same quotation mark as above
  • Click Replace All
  • Now repeat this step for the apostrophe, ellipsis, and dash as needed. If none are found by typing the character into the box, you may need to scan through your document for the first instance of the formatted character and copy and paste it into the Find What box. (For Word 2007, you will find the AutoCorrect Options and options to turn off AutoFormat under the Office Button >> Word Options >> Proofing >> AutoCorrect Options.)
Your document should now be un-prettified and ready for your editor.

---------------------------------------------Elsa Neal
Is Word driving you crazy? Then Word 4 Writers is for you. Learn to tame the monster and save your time in front of the screen for writing not fighting. Elsa Neal has been strong-arming Word for 14 years and teaching others to do the same. She is based in Melbourne, Australia.

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Sunday, October 5, 2008

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 tells her minions to dispose of it as they will. Then she leans back in her chair, picks her teeth with an aspiring author's leg bone, and wonders whether or not Susie Famous, her star author, is ready to publish again.

Phew! What I'm trying to say is, editors scare me! I know they receive large quantities of manuscripts, and they're super busy. I hope that a little insight into the true lives of editors will soothe my quaking heart.

Signed, Please Don't Munch Me!

Maryann: Gosh, Emma, stop watching me while I work.

Seriously, though, we editors are not wicked beasts. Well, maybe a few are, but not the majority. Most of us are just regular people who have learned how to go through a story and a manuscript and spot weak points or areas that could use some improvement. We are not saying what the author wrote was bad or awful. Well, maybe sometimes. But for the most part what we are saying is that the story is good. It could just be so much better if some of the "crafting" mistakes were fixed, like passive writing, cliches, stereotyping characters, flat dialogue.

So, please don't be afraid of us. Look to us for help, and we can be your friend.

Libby: Oh, please don't be "scared" of editors. Most of us are there to make a story glow and sparkle. To me, it's so satisfying to take a good story and watch it become even better as the author and I work together. I'm thrilled when one of "my" authors wins a contest or prize.

And I love watching an author grow in her/his abilities, which also makes my job easier.

I'm lucky, though, in that much of my work goes thru an acquisitions editor first, so I have large work piles, but not large slush piles to face.

Elle: Actually, Emma, you should be imagining a skinny, moth-eaten little mouse slaving over the slush pile, rather than a fire-breathing dragon. The dragon comes later. Often, the person given the nasty chore of clearing the slush pile is an intern, or perhaps even a temp. Your manuscript is looked at by someone who is probably dog-tired and sick of the sight of double-spaced 12 point printing, and who may have a limit on how many of the manuscripts she can pass up the line per day. She has to choose carefully, but she also has to be quick because the pile is added to every day.

Anything you can do to make the process easier will help a tiny amount. In other words, you don't want to seal your submission so tightly that she gets a paper cut trying to open it. Or have any staples or sharp clips that she's not expecting. Fonts that are too small, or too big, or a funny colour are more difficult to read when your brain has become tuned in to exactly 12 point. 1.5 line spacing is glaringly obvious to her, as well, even if it looks the same as double-spacing to you.

So, the slush pile reader is not to be feared - she's very human.

Emma Larkins has a dream: to make a living as a published author. Her publication credits include a story titled Midsummer Disc Dreams in the outdoor literary magazine, In the Mist, and an article called The Writer's Passion on the Feminine Aspects website. For more information, check out her blog and her website.

Friday, October 3, 2008

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) Finish What You Start

3) You Must Refrain from Rewriting, Except to Editorial Order

4) You Must Put Your Story on the Market

5) You Must Keep it on the Market until it has Sold

6) Start Working on Something Else

The most controversial of these, of course, is number three. Some people interpret this rule as an excuse to not edit their work before sending it out. Would this approach work for you? I know it most definitely would not work for me. I can't say I know what Heinlein meant by this rule. I never met the man. I do know what every writer knows. It is possible to spend a lifetime wordsmithing a single piece. We tend to feel our work is never "finished", never perfect. We can always make it better with one more rewrite.

I would never put a first draft in the mail. I choose to interpret number three differently. I have an editing process - a checklist of things to look for on each pass. Only the first three passes involve what I would consider "rewriting". The rest are pure editing passes - each with a specific focus. When I complete the list, it is time to get that work in the mail and move on.

Does this mean I write and edit without ever opening a reference book? Not a chance. The three books I use most often sit on my desk, within easy reach - an unabridged dictionary, the Chicago Manual of Style (it's what my publisher uses), and my favorite - Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of Synonyms (replaced my thesaurus the day I found it - it explains subtle differences in word meaning and connotation).

What reference books to you keep within easy reach?

Charlotte Phillips is the co-author of the Eva Baum Detective Series, Publicity Director for The Final Twist Writers Society and contributor to multiple blogs. Learn more about Charlotte and her books at: