Friday, November 28, 2008

Conflicting Advice: Emerging Authors Want To Know!

Dear Exalted Editors,

So, the author-editor combination seems like a pretty good one. Now I'm wondering about a different type of author-editor connection.

I know that when you editors get a look at my rough manuscript, you're going to have a whole lot to say. You will definitely come across some spelling that needs fixing. I know that I slip up from time to time - it took me years just to figure out which vowels went where in "calendar." (That's right, isn't it?)

And, as mentioned in the formatting post, I'm not a whiz with grammar, so I might have made some mistakes there. I won't argue with that. But, I'm afraid of what will happen when you start digging deeper. What will I do when you start switching sentence order? When you're concerned about the motives of a particular character? When you want the character's hair to be blue instead of brown? I've written my story a certain way, and I'm kind of attached to it. I know I've got a long way to go before I'm a polished writer, but how do I know if your advice is good when it conflicts with my own ideas of what's right? Should I speak up for myself, or should I bow to your wisdom?

On top of that, what if several editors look at my story, and they offer different suggestions? How do I know who to believe? Please help me out!

Signed, Wringing My Hands Through The Re-writes

Jesaka Long: It can be really intimidating to receive feedback from multiple editors, especially if the edits are conflicting! If you have the right editors, then you know they are looking out for our best interests and are helping to showcase your great writing. Still, you may disagree with one (or more) of them and have to make hard decisions. There's nothing wrong with refusing a change if you feel it damages your story.

One of the best ways to get some low-risk experience in managing multiple edits to your work is to join a writer's workshop. In a supportive group, you can get a feel for suggestions and edits that improve your work versus edits because someone has a style that differs from yours.

Whether the edits you receive are brilliant "why didn't I think of that" marks or just the opposite, it can still be hard to be edited. If you find that you're feeling resistant or that your "baby" is in danger, put it aside for a day or two. This always helps me gain some perspective!

Maryann Miller: You are right to be concerned about what some editors might do to your baby, and in the end the decision should be yours as to what changes should be made. An editor should never suggest changing details of description just because she does not like brown hair. Shame, shame on any editor who does that. But if the editor suggests switching the sentence order it may be because the narrative is not flowing smoothly. In regard to character motivation, that should be strong and obvious so a reader is not going to stop and say, "What? Why on earth is he doing that."

I tell all my clients that the final decision is always theirs, and I am only making suggestions. However, I do remind them that I am coming to the work with a fresh eye and considerable experience at editing. My suggestion to a new author is to read through that first edit and let all the emotions have free rein. There are going to be some issues. Trust me. My blood boiled the first time I was edited. "She massacred my baby!!!" Then I let it sit for a few days and went back and read through without the emotion. At that point I was able to sift through the suggestions and recognize those that worked and those that didn't.

Jill Noble: If an editor is asking you to make edits to grammar, POV, sentence structure, telling vs. showing etc., chances are those edits will make your manuscript stronger and you should pay attention. This can be a great learning experience, and often an editor pours hours into making your story shine. But if an editor is asking you to cut scenes, cut characters, or add things you aren't comfortable with, you have an obligation to your story to carefully consider these requests.

Under such circumstances, you (the author) could ask for the editor's reasoning behind the requested change, and try to analyze what's being suggested with an open mind. If there's a chance you're too close to the story to think unemotionally, ask for a second opinion from a friend you trust to be honest with you. (Hint: Pick the friend who would tell you that dress makes you look fat.)

Editors and authors should be prepared for the possibility that, on occasion, there will be no meeting of the minds. If that happens, both will need to decide if it's worth fighting over, and both should have the ability to "pick their battles." As an editor, I've given in a few times, but once or twice I had to cancel a contract partway through edits. One author refused to make changes to the final scene, which contained inaccurate police procedure any layman would recognize. Another refused to fix inaccurate sentence structure and POV issues because she felt to do so would tamper with her "voice." In both instances, while I disagreed with the author's opinion, I understood their reasoning, and we parted ways respectfully and amicably.

Writing for profit, editing and publishing are businesses. Authors, editors and publishers should strive to keep emotions out of the equation, and behave like professionals at all times.

Dani Greer: If the writer is simply too attached to an aspect of the story, perhaps it's time to review that element as a possible "darling". The more resistant you are to change, the more likely you might have to Kill Your Darling. Be brutal in your assessment, writer, but when all is said and done, a good author should have the last word. It is, after all, their story.

Elsa Neal: Your editor(s) should be able to explain their reasoning behind their edits. Many will include a note of explanation, but you can always ask for clarification if they don't. If you don't agree with their reasoning, this is an easier decision to make than accepting changes that you don't understand. But, if your editor has misunderstood your intention, this can also be a good indication that a section of your writing could be confusing to the reader - you may not agree with the editor's interpretation, but it will be clear to you that you need to make a change of some sort in order to avoid the reader making the same misinterpretation. Second and third opinions can come in handy in such a situation.


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.

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008


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Holidays are a great opportunity to enrich your manuscript. The trick is not to just mention a holiday in passing, but to add vivid descriptions of how one is celebrated in your character's life.

You can draw on this by your own experience. Think of a holiday, such as Thanksgiving. What's the weather like outside? That will depend on where you live and/or the climate vagaries of the fictional year you create.

Who is invited to your character's house to celebrate the holiday? Who prepares the meal? The mother, the wife, the son, the daughter, one, some, or all? Who helps? How is the table set? That may depend on the station in life of your characters, whether they're well-off or perhaps just-married college students.

What is on the menu? Does it reflect the main character's ethnicity, or perhaps some quirk? Many people eat turkey for Thanksgiving, but maybe your character is alone and eating spam.

What about guilt? There are lots of possibilities for that, such as a dinner guest who forgot to bring a hostess gift. Then there's the working wife who feels bad because she uses canned gravy and ready-made dressing instead of making them from scratch.

Or what about the eternal ying and yang of invitations to the husband's and wife's houses on the same day, at the same time? Where to go? Who to please?

Can you think of any holiday descriptions from your own novel or someone else's that stand out in your mind? Please share.


Morgan is also at, &

Morgan Mandel

Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah

Everyone is wordy. Some people’s prose is underdeveloped, yes, but still wordy. Others’ is definitely long-winded and definitely wordy. Most beginners use more words than necessary to express what they mean, but so do many accomplished authors.

All writers need to check themselves carefully in order to produce tight prose because filler words, the extra calories of sentences, can too easily creep in.

Public enemy number one: “The reason is because Stacia wanted to kiss Reese.”
Drop the first four words in this sentence and you haven’t lost a thing. In fact, you’ve probably gained a few readers.

Another troublemaker is “there were/was.” For example, “There were several reasons that Stacia wanted to date Reese.” “There were/was” is often unnecessary. “Stacia wanted to date Reese for several reasons” reads more smoothly, is more direct, and is clearer.

The next instances of wordiness are more subtle. “Stacia reached out a hand and touched Reese.” Usually if you touch someone, the reader will fill in the implication that you reached out a hand, or even merely reached out. So “Stacia touched Reese” will do. The same goes for “Stacia turned and faced Reese.” “Stacia faced Reese” is enough.

Some examples of wordiness are humorous, if you visualize them. Think about this one. “Stacia nibbled the knuckles of Reese’s index finger with her teeth.” Duh. What else would she nibble with?

And some are simply overkill. “Stacia still felt a tremor hidden deep within her that refused to let up.” I’ll leave it to you to rewrite this one, but it could definitely stand revision.

The bottom line? Trim that flab if you want your prose to move.

Editors, how would you revise these examples?

1. The National Gallery of Art, which is in Washington, D.C., and which houses the Mellon, Kress, and Widener collections, is one of the largest marble structures in the entire world.

2. When the fans in the stadium shout and yell, the shouting and yelling is deafening, and so the total effect of all this is that it is a contributing factor in decisions to stay home and watch the games on TV.

3. I am of the opinion that one reason why these two newspapers have such power is because so many people are happy to let the reporters and editors tell them what to think and let them form their opinions for them.

Shelley Thrasher inflicts her belief that less is more on the authors whose novels she edits. They scream a lot, but generally cave in. Then she asks some of them to write new scenes to increase their word count. And, wonder of wonders, they seem to appreciate it.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Third Draft Editing

As promised when I started this series on editing I have more tips to offer. What I have been posting is taken from an editing workshop that I have given at writers' conferences. I didn't realize I had so much material until I started breaking it down for this blog and realized there are literally pages of tips. Hope you are finding them helpful.

In the second draft I suggested you look at characterization, plotting and story continuity. In the third draft you will want to pay attention to pacing, voice, and style. Is the story going fast enough? Too fast? Is the dialogue natural? Concise? Is the rhythm of the words unique to your writing or does it read like every other book out there in your genre?

Some editing techniques to use:

FISH CLEANING - chop off the head and tail of scenes.
It is not necessary to have characters walk into and out of every scene. In dialogue it is not necessary to have all the courtesy talk, “thank you.” “hello.” “goodbye” You don’t have to set up a character with description or history when you introduce him or her in the story.


From Cold Sassy Tree – Three weeks after Granny Blakeslee died, Grandpa came to our house for his early morning snort of whiskey, as usual, and said to me, "Will Tweedy? Go find yore mama, then run up to yore Aunt Loma's and tell her I said git on down here. I got something to say. And I ain't a-go'n to say it but once't."

In just a few words, the reader gets a sense of these people and the place, because the author used an engaging style to “show” us these people. What are some of the things we know about Grandpa? He’s a drinker. He’s an authority figure. About the story? Grandmother just died. People pay attention to what Grandpa has to say. About the boy? He respects Grandpa. He’s obedient. This is probably going to be his story in his POV.

That kind of writing is stronger than the typical introduction that usually incorporates a detailed physical description and history.

This fish-cleaning approach to editing can be used for the entire book, by throwing out the first chapter – or at least a good chunk of it. Most of the books I have written have started out slow, and I realized after a while that the story actually began about ten to twenty pages in. And sometimes we writers have a hard time letting go of the story in that last chapter and tend to overwrite it.

Time to get out the fillet knife.

The fish-cleaning approach can also be applied to paragraphs and sentences, cutting an unnecessary clause here and there. And it does wonders for improving dialogue. How many times have you read something like: “Are you going to the store today?” “No. I’m not going to the store today.”

Chop, chop, and you get something like this: “Going to the store?” “Nope.”

People don’t talk in full sentences and don’t include every scrap of information that is pertinent to a topic. The tighter you can make your dialogue, the more natural it will sound and it will help keep the pace of the story moving. A master of terse dialogue is Robert B. Parker, who writes the Spenser PI series. His dialogue literally snaps off the page, and I encourage all writers to read one of his books to see how he handles dialogue.

Not that you will want to write exactly like he does. Not all genres call for his kind of terse writing. Depending on the mood of the story and the expectations of the genre, dialogue will be fuller and richer, but it doesn’t have to be ponderous. What a writer can learn from him is how the dialogue flows naturally from one character to the other without extraneous words. And without a lot of dialogue attributives other than "said."

The next post will be more on the third draft editing. Stay tuned....


Maryann Miller is an author and freelance editor. Her latest books are One Small Victory and Play it Again, Sam. Visit her Web site for information about her books and her editing services.

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Monday, November 24, 2008

Listen to the Voices

Not long ago, I wrote about Hearing Voices. Today, we talk about listening to the voices of your characters.

My husband, who is 6'6" often gets asked how tall he is. He usually answers that he's average, everyone else is taller or shorter. (Don't even ask what my 6'10" son gets asked!) If you were writing about a man who is 6'6", you might describe him as tall. But that's not necessarily how he would describe himself if he were a character in your book. That character might answer as my husband does. Or if an even taller person were describing that character, he might say the character is short.

It's not just a matter of what is said by a character, although that's certainly a big part of voice. A character who is poverty stricken would see things and focus on areas of his life that are different than a character who has plenty of money and support in his life. It's also a matter of how the character speaks.

Listen to the broad voices of your characters. Does one speak more formally while another uses slang? What part of the country or world is a particular character from? That can determine the cadence of his voice or how she strings words into sentences. What age is your character? What ethnicity? What sex?

While you're listening to the broad voices, pay attention to the small things, too. A word here or there can be very telling ... can brand your character. Does she say, "Howdy" or "Hello"? Does he use phrases like, "I need a facilitator," or "We were about to leave"? Or does he say, "I need someone to help," or "We were fixing to leave"?

Real people have real voices. So do real characters. And if you're hearing these characters in your head, they must be real. Real to you, anyway. They're speaking. Listen to them. Put them down on paper. Then they're real to other people.

Helen Ginger is an authorblogger, Coordinator of Story Circle Network's Editorial Services and Chair of the Texas Book Festival Author Escorts. She teaches public speaking as well as writing and marketing workshops. You can follow Helen on Twitter or connect with her on Facebook and LinkedIn. Helen is the author of the novels Dismembering the Past and Angel Sometimes, three books in TSTC Publishing’s TechCareers series, and two of her short stories can be found in the anthology, The Corner Cafe.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Writing for Radio; Familiar but Slightly Different

Writing for the radio, in some ways, is very similar to writing for the page, but there are also integral ways that writing a radio script is very different. Let’s start with the way that a good radio play, for example, is similar to a good short story.

1. Short stories and radio plays need strong, compelling characters that the audience cares about.

2. Active verbs make the writing more interesting in both short stories and radio plays.

3. A good short story, like a radio play, starts right in the action. There is no meandering around, going on about back story or the setting in too much detail. The writer must hook the audience straight away; in radio even more so since one turn of the dial and the story is gone.

4. Telling the audience what to think and feel will kill a radio script just as quickly as it kills a short story. Let the audience be active in the story.

5. A good radio drama like a good short story is ‘lean and mean’. Get to the conflict quickly; introduce the protagonist and antagonist within the first few minutes. Brutally eliminate anything not needed.

Those are just a few ways that writing for radio is similar to writing a short story; but there are important ways that writing for radio is different.

First, radio listeners only get one chance to hear what you have written, unlike writing on the page that can be read again if not understood the first time. Radio writers don’t have that luxury. Because of that, sentences must be very clear. To ensure that your listeners are getting what you want them to:

- Don’t use big words when small ones will do.

- Use short sentences, avoid complicated sentences- throw away those semicolons!

- Be aware of homophones- words that sound the same but have a different meaning (to-too-two). Make sure yours are not confusing the listener.

- Use contractions.

Another big difference between writing for the page and writing for radio is dialogue. In radio, it is important that your characters are very diverse. They should sound very different. This might be because of age or sex, but also culture, education, speech patterns, or dialect. There is nothing more frustrating as a listener than to listen to a radio play and get confused about which character is speaking. The way you write the dialogue can help dramatically with this.

Also with dialogue on radio, unlike in short story, the characters should sound the way people normally talk. They should pause, repeat words, lose track of the thread of the conversation. They should sound just like us. In short stories, we get rid of those flaws. On radio those pauses, those mix-ups help to build suspense and build up the character in the listener’s mind.

In radio writing, the story and setting are built with dialogue, narration, and sound effects. Music and sound effects can quickly define a setting that on the page might take hundreds of words to do. Using these effectively is very important.

Many people get caught up in the formatting of radio scripts which is unfortunate. Formatting is easily taught and there are many software programmes that can format for you. It is far more important that the radio writer takes care and keeps in mind at all times that they are writing for the radio and adapts their writing appropriately.

Why not take a stab at radio drama writing? Here’s a fantastic contest for radio drama sponsored by BBC World Service and British Council. Good Luck!


Lauri Kubuitsile lives in Botswana. She writes radio lessons for the Ministry of Education and has just been awarded the tender for a 26-part radio drama for primary school children. She also writes short stories and novels for adults and children.

Want to know more about what life as a full time writer in Southern Africa is all about? Read her blog, Thoughts from Botswana.

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Monday, November 17, 2008

WWW Resources for Writers

Have you noticed how many bloggers have lists of links to other blogs? Often, the links are labeled "favorites." Ever wonder why they are favorites? On my blog, many are in the list because they provide great advice and tips to authors.

Some, like Velda Brotherton offer great tips on the process of writing and tips to improve writing such as this one on including the senses in your scenes.

Teagan Oliver offers other views on writing. Recently she took us on a tour of the hero's journey.

LJ Sellers, who is a tallented writer and editor, offers tips on both writing and editing. In this linked example, she shares some simple edits that make for stronger, clearer storytelling.

Over at BlogBookTours, Dani Greer works hard to help us create and maintain effective blogs and to use those blogs to market our books.

Helen Ginger provides all sorts of tips from writing to marketing. She often hosts guest bloggers with expertise in specific areas.

Some sites are a mixed bag. Pauline Baird Jones has a blog and website that offer much helpful information for both readers and writers.

Today, I stumbled into quite a treat for any author who likes to keep up with blogs about real-world crime fighting and associated topics. Lee Lofland, offers a wealth of information at The Graveyard Shift. Not only are his current blogs very informative, he also provides links to the archives grouped into categories like Death Investigation and Police Dogs. Great fact-checking stuff, but he doesn't stop there. He provides extensive blog rolls for other authors' sites and Crime Writer's blogs, and shorter lists of experts, agents, and publishers.

I learn something every time I visit these sites. If you are interested in writing or the business of writing, you may want to check them out too.

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:

News, Views and Reviews blog

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Sunday, November 16, 2008

Second Drafts

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about Shitty First Drafts. Today I continue this series, which will include one or two more posts. The information I shared last time and will share for the rest of the series is taken from a workshop that I give at writers' conferences focusing on editing.

The second draft of a novel is when a writer should look at plot, structure, characters, and story elements. Is the book saying what you want it to say? Have you surprised the reader, or is the plot predictable? Is the ending a satisfactory conclusion to the story, or is it contrived? Have you taken the reader up to mountain peaks and down to valleys, or is the writing flat?

The essence of story is drama, and drama naturally flows out of action and reaction. Is that happening in your story?

Is your cast of characters appropriate? Are they interesting? Do they all add something to the story? Are they balanced throughout, or have you given secondary characters too much time?

Some writers, like Eileen Goudge, who’s written several books in a series set in Carson Springs, California have so many characters it is hard to keep track of them. When I reviewed one of her later books, A Wish Come True, I found sub-plots that didn’t always connect to the main plot. I think she made one of the basic mistakes series writers sometimes do, and that was to introduce the reader to the whole community in every story. Information about these characters was repeated almost every time one of them took the stage, which made for some ponderous reading in places.

I skip-read through parts of the book, and as an author, you never want to give your reader an opportunity – or a need – to skip read. Most readers who really love to read want to be able to savor the words as much as the story.


We all start off with a lot more telling than showing and that's okay. It's part of the shitty first draft. To me, the biggest creative challenge comes in the second draft when we try to make the story come alive with active scenes and vivid details that draw the reader into our work.

Some people are better than others at first drafts, but most good books go through one or two complete rewrites.

Then, too, there are some that get published without the rewrite, and we wonder why. Which is why I advise clients not to necessarily pattern their writing after what they read.

For Example:

I consider this weak writing: "I need a pain shot," she said with some difficulty. Her mouth was dry. (Robin Cook - MUTATION)

To me, this is much stronger: Dagget's anxiety threatened again. He felt boxed in. By the traffic. By this obese man sitting next to him. He could feel his hair turning gray. (Ridley Pearson - HARD FALL)

In the second example the reader is pulled into the moment and the character, feeling the anxiety with him.

Next up: The fish-cleaning approach to editing. Stay tuned.


Maryann Miller is an author and freelance editor. Visit her
Web site for information about her books and her editing services.

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Saturday, November 15, 2008

Dos & Don'ts of Synopsis Writing

A strong synopsis showcases your characters and plot, and demonstrates your ability to structure a story. It shows a cohesive plot worthy of an agent or editor’s attention and time, and allows your agent, publisher, marketing department or overseas acquisitions editor to sell your story. 


1. If possible, write your synopsis before you start first draft.
2. Give an overview of the plot and primary characters.
3. Include brief description of each.
4. If you include subplots, make sure they relate to main plot, and show resolution.
5. Relate characters to goal of protagonist and how their goal supports or thwarts such.
6. Include major plot points that lead up to the "darkest hour."
7. Keep it short. (1-5 pages) You will need several lengths for various uses, so write 1,3, and 5-page versions.
8. Unless otherwise indicated, double space.
9. Times New Roman, or Courier New 12pt. with one-inch margins. 


1. Have too many proper names to keep up with.
2. Give too much detail. A synopsis is meant to show the structure—the plot.
3. Write in past tense or passive voice.
4. Fail to include the end of the story.
5. Fail to show transitions to indicate change of POV or time/place.
6. Fail to unfold the synopsis the same as the story.
7. Raise questions. (In a synopsis, we tell, not show.)
8. Include internal or external dialogue. 

Have questions? Be sure to leave them in the comments for the editors to answer.

Storycatcher Sylvia Dickey Smith authors the Sidra Smart mysteries. A series set in southeast Texas, the exotic land where oil refineres are king, where hurricanes often blow, and where the only thing that separates Texas from Louisisana is the mysterious, haunting Blue Elbow Swamp and the powerful Sabine River. Her books are Dance on His Grave and Deadly Sins Deadly Secrets. Watch for Book Three, coming out soon.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Adjectives - Love 'em and Leave 'em

"Substitute "damn" every time you're inclined to write "very;" your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be." - Mark Twain

"Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs. The adjective hasn't been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place." - William Strunk, Jr.

Still not convinced that all your carefully selected adjectives weaken the story? I dare you to dig up that paragraph you slaved over - the one with all the beautiful, flowery, descriptive words. You know the one. Make a copy and remove all the adjectives. Read both - the original and the new. Read them again. Which is stronger?

I don't know what you found, but I usually find the words are stronger when there are fewer of them. If I'm unhappy with the shorter version, I try to figure out what is wrong - and that generally turns out to be an incorrect verb, not a missing adjective.

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:

News, Views and Reviews blog

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Thursday, November 13, 2008

How many editors does it take? Part 2

Today we welcome Karen Syed of Echelon Press for a publisher’s view of the editing process. Welcome, Karen!

Dani: How many of the various types of edits does each of your books go through from start to finish?

Karen: When the book is submitted I make general notes as I read. Then, upon acceptance, it goes to the Sr. Editor who makes a general read and makes general comments. At that point it is assigned to an editor who goes back and forth with the author until they are both certain it is as clean as it can be. Then it goes back to Sr. Editor, who goes through and offers any further notes. Goes back to editor and author until they are again certain it is clean.

Once it gets the approval of the Sr. Editor, it comes to me. I do final formatting and word by word read-through and make any further edits or comments.

At that time, a last PDF proof is sent back to the author so they can make a final read-through and make any revision requests required.

I go back and forth with the author until they make final approval, at which point is goes to press.

Dani: How many "editors" for each book?

Karen: At Echelon we have a minimum of two, usually three editors on each project.

Dani: What is the absolute last time you can make corrections before publication?

Karen: When I send out the final PDF proof to the author, we go back and forth until they say they are 100% satisfied with the book. Once they make that approval, time is up.

So, you see, readers, the editing process is ongoing and intense. This underscores the importance of having a clean manuscript to submit to a publisher, because without doubt, the editing process will continue for several rounds before the book actually goes into print. It’s a tremendous amount of work. But good editing, before submission and after, is what gives a book the edge when it hits print. It’s not an area in which to cut corners.
Dani Greer is a professional artist and writer who is one of those aforementioned independent editors for her favorite writing pals. She prefers to read historical and cozy mysteries. Dani is the founding member of the Blood-Red Pencil. You can connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

The Comma According to Trask

There are only four specific uses for a comma according to R.L. Trask in his Guide to Punctuation: Listing, Joining, Gapping, and Bracketing. If the comma you want to use doesn't fit into any of those categories then the comma is the wrong choice of punctuation. This is my interpretation and summary of Trask's section on commas.

Listing Commas

These are the commas we're most familiar with.

Apples, oranges, grapes, and pears
The serial (or "Oxford") comma (the comma before "and") is not compulsory, but it does help to avoid ambiguity, such as in the infamous example:

I'd like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God.
It is only important to be consistent in your choice to use, or not use, the serial comma. If one of your sentences contains an ambiguity that requires a serial comma, you must edit every other sentence that contains a list where the serial comma has been omitted.

Joining Commas

A joining comma joins two sentences together with a connecting word such as and, or, but, while, or yet.

We will wait in the car, but Sarah will return home to pack.
The sentence above would require a semi-colon rather than a comma without the use of the connecting word "but".

Gapping Commas

The gapping comma is used to indicate that (repeated) words have been left out of a sentence.

The Cambridge students decided to play chess; the Oxford students, cricket.
The comma replaces the words "decided to play" in the sentence above.

The gapping comma, like the serial comma, can be omitted if there is no ambiguity caused, and if the use or omission is consistent throughout the document.

Bracketing Commas

If a portion of a sentence can be placed in brackets it can also be placed between commas for clarity. And commas are less intrusive than brackets. Another way to determine whether bracketing commas are required is to read the sentence without the phrase in question. Use commas if the sentence is still complete without the phrase. But again, as with the gapping comma, bracketing commas can be omitted if doing so doesn't affect the clarity of the sentence or cause ambiguity.

Sam initially wanted a coffee, but, after having to walk all the way to the cafe, decided on a cold drink instead.
"after having to walk all the way to the cafe" is extra information that can be removed from the sentence and it will still make sense.

Bracketing commas are always used in pairs, unless the phrase falls at the beginning or end of a sentence. It is better to leave a comma off completely than to use only one of a bracketing pair in the middle of a sentence. A very common error in a sentence like the example above is to omit the first bracketing comma after "but".

Once you wrap your head around the four uses of the comma it becomes much simpler to deal with this most common of punctuation marks.

R. L. Trask was a Professor of Linguistics at the University of Sussex and highly regarded as both a lecturer and the author of books such as Mind the Gaffe! and Say What You Mean : The Superior Person's Guide to Precise and Lucid English Usage. Larry Trask's combined American and British perspective on language usage is particularly useful in our global era. He was born in the United States in 1944, and lived in England from 1970 to his death in 2004.

Elle Carter Neal is a writer based in Melbourne, Australia. Visit her website for more grammar and writing articles. Stay and browse through her resources for writers or follow her writing insights at her Fictional Life Blog.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Watch Your Posture

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How many times did your Mom say, "Sit Up Straight" or "Don't Slouch?" How many times did you ignore that advice, or maybe still do?

Listen to your mother. Posture is important to everyone, including writers. You may ask, how could sitting in one spot and not doing physical exertion possibly be harmful for your body?

Believe it or not, how you hold yourself while using a computer can mean the difference between feeling fine or developing unpleasant body aches or worse. A league of problems can arise from bad posture at the computer -- to name a few: a stiff neck, pinched nerve, carpal tunnel syndrome, sore arms.

Some don'ts I've heard are:

  • Don't lean forward
  • Don't hold your elbows and arms in the air while typing
  • Don't reach up to type.
  • Don't get too close to the computer.
  • Watch out for glare.

    Recommendations I've heard:
  • Sit at a 90 degree angle.
  • Do stretching exercises before, during and/or after you come up for air from writing to relieve the tension your body unconsciously experiences.

True, when you're in the flow and thinking only of your story, it's hard to remember you exist in the real world, but about the other times? If you get into the habit of good posture when you're conscious of what you're doing, it may carry over to times when you visit the other realm. If not, you'll still be ahead of the game.

Can you think of other ways to improve your writing posture or not? If so, I'd appreciate your leaving a comment below.

I'm signing off now. I've got some wrist stretching exercises to do.


Morgan is also at, &

Monday, November 10, 2008

Let It Snow

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It's going to happen soon enough, so you may as well be ready for it when it arrives. Dare I say that naughty, four letter word? SNOW@!#

My area of the Midwest was hammered with that pesky stuff last year, as evidenced by the photo to the left. Instead of looking on it as something evil, which is easy to do since it gets in the way when you want to drive or walk, think of it as an opportunity for better writing. Use snow in your manuscript.

When you do this, don't dwell on the obvious. Instead of describing snow as pretty, white, or cold, use it as a vehicle to move your plot forward.

Common Occurrence: During the winter my newspaper often gets buried in the snow and I discover it later when shoveling the stoop.

Opportunity: What if an important article about a rapist or mass killer were in the paper, but a victim wasn’t alerted because she didn’t uncover her paper from the snow in time?

Common Occurrence: Snow covers car windows, fogs up glasses, and makes it hard to see.

Opportunity: Your character is involved in a vehicle accident due to poor visibility. Take it a step further. The ambulance can't get there because of a traffic buildup. The hero performs CPR on an accident victim.

True example: One winter I slipped in the snow and banged my head on the sidewalk. For a moment I felt disoriented, but then was able to get up and walk away.

Opportunity: What if your character slipped, was knocked unconscious and suffered amnesia?

True example: Snowstorms often delay my mail.

Opportunity: What if your character is waiting for an important letter, but it slips from the mail carrier’s hands in the wind and gets buried in the snow a few doors down?

You get the picture. Sure, snow is pretty, but it’s also a useful vehicle. See how many ways you can make snow do things for you.


Morgan is also at, &

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Hearing Voices

Today, part one on the voices of your book characters:

There's an assumption that if you're hearing voices in your head, then you must be crazy. To that, I reply ... maybe not. You could be a writer. Yes, yes, I hear some of you out there muttering, "Aren't they the same thing?"

I encourage all of you to listen to those voices, even cultivate them. Those are characters speaking to you, telling you their stories, their lives.

Let's say you're writing a book. That novel has many characters in it. Each one speaks in a different voice. Each person has to have his or her own voice. If they sound alike then the reader will get them confused or wonder if this is a town of clones. Even siblings who grow up in the same house with the same parents and go to the same schools don't say things the same way.

Those of you who have kids, try an experiment. Ask each one to tell about an event, perhaps shooting fireworks at the last Fourth of July. Have someone else record their words, then transcribe them for you (that way you can't hear their actual voices). Now, read their descriptions. There's a good chance you can tell which kid said what just by the way they word things, the order they tell the story, the things each noticed about the occasion, the details they put in or leave out.

That's because real people have real voices. They have their own way of saying things, of stringing their words together. One person notices the sweat on the basketball players' faces, the way the post player pants as she runs. Another player at the same game pays attention to the hawker going up and down the aisles selling cotton candy. We each see what's important to us. We're each influenced by our pasts, by our previous experiences and beliefs.

Next time: Part Two on Voices

How do you go about hearing the voices of your characters? Do they talk to you? Do you listen? Can you hear the differences in their voices?

Helen Ginger is an authorblogger, Coordinator of Story Circle Network's Editorial Services and Chair of the Texas Book Festival Author Escorts. She teaches public speaking as well as writing and marketing workshops. You can follow Helen on Twitter or connect with her on Facebook and LinkedIn. Helen is the author of the novels Dismembering the Past and Angel Sometimes, three books in TSTC Publishing’s TechCareers series, and two of her short stories can be found in the anthology, The Corner Cafe.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Shitty First Drafts

Writing is a talent, a dream, an obsession, a release, a thrill, but it is also a craft. The words don't just magically appear on paper - all arranged at their finest. The words we love to read were painstakingly crafted by the author, paragraph by paragraph, line by line.

Anne Lamott, a wonderful writer describes the process in her book, Bird by Bird, this way: “For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts."

And further:

“The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.”

What wonderful advice. No wonder her books are so good.

A book can go through as many drafts as necessary, and every author has his or her own method of getting to the finished manuscript. The following suggestions are not RULES. Do what works best for you.

The first draft - get the story down from beginning to end. Some people like to edit as they go, and if that works for you, great. Others, like Ms. Lamott, prefer to get the story down, then go back to edit, and I am in that camp, too. I may do a little editing of two or three pages, just to jump-start the writing the next day, but I don’t go to far back. Fine-tuning can sometimes be just an excuse to avoid going forward.

A hint I picked up a long time ago is to stop writing in the middle of a scene. That gives you something to work on right away the next time you sit down to write, and often the next scene will flow naturally out of the one you are working on.

More about the second draft when I post again. In the meantime, have fun playing with your characters.

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.

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Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Author Editors: Emerging Authors Want To Know!

Dear Exalted Editors,

I recently went to a science fiction literary convention, and I had the chance to mingle with established authors and emerging authors from all walks of life. It really drove home the fact that not all emerging authors are like me. Specifically, it made me think about the different experiences some of these writers were bringing to their writing careers.

The author/editor combination is one that I'm seeing more and more frequently. In this case, either a published author decides to become an editor, or an editor decides to give publication a shot.

I can see the benefits to both of these transformations. Authors who have worked for years on perfecting their own writing should have a fairly good eye for making corrections in other people's work. Editors who have slaved over manuscripts in various stages of polish should be ahead of the game when it comes to polishing their own. Have the author/editors here found this to be so? What other benefits are there? Would you suggest an emerging author try out a career in editing at some point?

Crossing over like this also raises some questions for me. When an editor becomes an author, does this create a conflict of interest? For example, because editors are in a position of power, might they have the potential to turn away competing authors? I know it's paranoid, but it has crossed my mind. What suggestions do you have for setting up boundaries? Can you allay my emerging fears?

Signed, Editing A Happy Ending?

Zetta Brown: You've just described my life! I'm an author and editor and I can relate to "the conflict within," if you know what I mean.

In fact, I was thinking of doing an entry on my blog about it.

Speaking as an author, I love reading and writing and want my words to make sense. Improving my editing skills was a natural progression, in my opinion. Any author who has tried to get published soon learns that their work needs to be as clean as possible in order for it to pass muster.

Speaking as an editor, I like working with new authors trying to establish themselves. I've helped (or tried to help) many people get published as a freelancer. In my opinion, an editor shouldn't try to rewrite an author's work in their own image but help the author say what he or she is trying to say. As far as worrying that an editor being an author creates a conflict of interest, there's really no need. You can give a group of 5 people the same writing assignment and get 5 different stories.

Personally, I wouldn't suggest an "emerging" author to don both caps until he or she has some experience with submitting their work and having it rejected or accepted. I also wouldn't suggest an author, who can't TAKE critique, to try and dish it out on someone else.

But I don't think there's anything wrong with an author being an editor, or vice versa.

With regard to setting boundaries, and speaking as editor-in-chief for our publishing company, when I review submissions (in my position of power ;D) I'm just looking out for an entertaining read that also displays an understanding of the technical aspects of writing.

Maryann Miller: Just to clarify about editors possibly hogging the book slots if they are also authors, rest easy. That doesn't happen. Well, maybe in some obscure one-person publishing entitiy that started up to publish his or her books. But the publishers that I have worked for have separate acquisition editors, so I couldn't bump somone's book off the list even if I wanted to.

Working as an editor for other writers has certainly helped me in my writing, and I find that I don't continually make some of the mistakes I used to when I first started out. Seeing them in other work helped bang the concept into my thick skull. :-) So from that standpoint, editing is a useful learning tool, but I think it would be hard for an emerging author to get jobs as an editor.

You would need some education and training to be able to do it professionally. Some editors start out as copy editors, or proofers, and that is certainly a way to launch an editing career, but I think a new writer would be better off focusing on learning and practicing the craft of writing and save the editing for later. I didn't start editing professionally until I had been writing and selling for about 15 years. During the process of being edited, I learned a lot about how the relationship between editor and author works. That also taught me some of the fine points of editing, as did the years I edited for a magazine and trained with the senior editor there.

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.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Why Don't You Make Sense?

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When you write a novel, make sure it makes sense, not just to you, but also the readers.

How do you do this?

Look for inconsistencies in your character’s thinking or actions. What image do you wish to project for that character? Does everything that character says or does reflect that image?

Example: A shy girl would not swear out loud or wear a bikini, unless a metamorphosis is taking place.

Make sure the timeline follows easily. Handle flashbacks with care. Don’t confuse readers by flitting back and forth in time or seasons without good reason. Also, when time periods change, give hints as to how many days or months or seasons or years have passed.

Wrong: Graduation was over, yet Larry had no clue what to do with his life.

Right: Larry couldn’t believe it was already a year since graduation. He still had no clue what to do with his life.

Make sure actions are not confusing. Explain in detail if necessary.

Example: When I went through my first edit of Two Wrongs with my editor, Libby McKinmer, another member of our group, she pointed out certain paragraphs in my fight scene on the balcony and the escalator at Marshall Field’s Department store and told me to explain them more fully because she couldn’t figure out exactly what was taking place. If my editor couldn’t understand it, for sure the readers wouldn’t.

I went back to that scene, thought it through carefully and described everything blow by blow, step by step. Where were they standing? When did they hit each other? How far did they go on the escalator? All of that was in my mind, but not on the printed page.

I’m sure there are other examples of how to make sense in a manuscript. Please comment if you think of any.

Morgan Mandel

Morgan is also at, &

Editors edit commas...and more

Nowadays commas are on the decline in contemporary prose. Almost an endangered species. And there are many differing opinions about the use of them. This will not be an “official” essay on the correct use of commas. Dear lord, I would dare not presume to be of such authority to instruct you as to where, when, and in what order to include, place, and feel correct in your use of the useful, often necessary, but more often than ever before in literature shunned punctuation, the comma. I just intend to lay out some thoughts of my own on the subject and share some experiences I’ve had dealing with the ponderous and mighty question, “to comma or not to comma?” over the past several years.

From Maryann - I was going to edit your opening paragraph, then I realized it is a joke. I hope everyone gets it.

When I was writing my first manuscript intended for publication, I ROMANCED THE STONE (Memoirs of a Recovering Hippie), I was living in the same house with a young man, a recent college graduate, a theology major and English minor. He instructed me that commas were to go everywhere. That’s what his English professors had taught him. Place them after any designation of time. For instance, like right now, use the comma. He instructed me on the usual separation of a series of related nouns, or adjectives, or actions, as in the President, the Vice President, the Speaker of the house, and the berating, drinking, wife beating jerk of a guy, of course, as well as a virtual text book full of other instances in which the comma should be inserted as a matter of good form in correct writing.

(Revision of previous paragraph by Maryann)
When I was writing my first book , I ROMANCED THE STONE (Memoirs of a Recovering Hippie), I was living in the same house with a young man who was a recent college graduate. He had minored in English, and he told me that commas were to go everywhere. That’s what his English professors had taught him. Place them after any designation of time. For instance, like right now, use the comma. He instructed me on the usual separation of a series of related nouns, or adjectives, or actions, as in the President, the Vice President, the Speaker of the house, and the berating, drinking, wife beating jerk of a guy. It was like living with a virtual text book full of other instances in which the comma should be inserted as a matter of good form in correct writing. (See how much smoother that reads, Marvin?)

Marvin: Yes I do.

Well what a crock that turned out to be.

I sent the ms in for submissions. I got a few bites and finally got a pub house to take the book on their production schedule. Then the manuscript was sent in to the pub house’s editor. She emailed me back, informing me with about a million highlights that my ms was waaaaaay over-comma’d . “Please remove 90% of them”) and why.

(Revision by Maryann)

She emailed me, informing me with about a million highlights that my manuscript was waaaaaay over-comma’d and why.


Because today’s readers want to decide for themselves when to pause. They don’t want some presumptuous author telling them when to take a breath, when to stop, when to do anything. Write the story. I’ll read it the way I want to read it, thank you very much. All your commas are distracting me.

From Maryann: Really? I've never heard this.

Marvin: I hadn't either until my last editor enlightened me.

I have writer and good friend colleague who has been writing books for decades. She and I discussed this dwindling use of commas phenomenon a while back. It’s gotten rather confusing to lots of authors, when and where to put the commas. Even from one pub house to the other, from one editor to the other, what they want to see is different. She quipped that here lately when she sends in her ms to the editor she just leaves all the commas out, sends along a page full of commas and tells the editor to “put ‘em where you want ‘em!” LOL. Well I don’t go that far, but I must admit I am a bit gun-shy about the excessive use of commas. I thought I had the modern day use of commas thing down when I sent my last ms in, Owen Fiddler. Nope. Got it back from my editor with a note telling me she just couldn’t read it until I took about a million commas out. But I think I’ve got a pretty good grip on it now. Let me show you.

Here’s an example of “old school” use of commas in prose.

John, after his lunch, went to the bedroom, wanting to take a nap. He slipped off his loafers, his shirt, and his pants, and after saying his prayers, he fell fast asleep.

That’s the way your English professor still wants you to write it, and he/she will give you an A. But here’s the way most modern day editors that know their readership’s preferences want you to write it.

After lunch John went to the bedroom wanting to take a nap. He slipped off his loafers, his shirt and pants, and after saying his prayers he fell fast asleep.

See how much faster and smoother that reads? And you can pause anywhere you want, if you want to. Your choice, I’m not demanding that you stop anywhere. Hey guys – we live in a fast paced society. People got things to do. They email, chat, IM, twitter, myspace, facebook, yahoo group, blog, raise kids, have hobbies and full time jobs. Diurnal book reading time is cut down these days to precious few minutes or short hours per day for most people. They’re like, “Don’t bog me down with commas – run the story. Ain’t got a lotta time here.”

From Maryann: I agree that the second example is easier to read and there is a great debate between using correct punctuation and acceptable punctuation. However, not all publishing entities are following the more relaxed trend, so authors will still run into editors who will ask for changes. It would be so much easier if there was a standard that all publishing houses would use. The temptation to follow the example of your friend is strong. Just let the editors at the publisher decide where to put the commas.

It’s a sign of the times. Commas are going the way of the dinosaurs. The majority of Americans today are baby boomers. The Hippie generation. They are natural born despisers of authority. They don’t like being told that they have to do anything, let alone be told by some authoritative author when and where they should take a pause in their reading. So calm down with your commas, authors. You can still use them and in certain cases must use them appropriately, but don’t raise your editor’s or reader’s ire by the overuse of them. And “overuse” is a term that is being redefined and constantly revisited as our society and its book readers need to keep pace with the zip of contemporary life.

From Shelley: As a former English professor and hippie, I straddle the fence on this issue. When editing nonfiction, I tend to follow traditional rules, and when editing fiction I use fewer commas.

But clarity is always my bottom line. Both authors and editors should use this small tool as a way to say, "We intend for you to pause here, but if you don't want to, that's your choice." Hippies can be as reasonable as anyone. Marijuana is very calming. :)

Marvin: Ha! Yes indeed. And I agree with clarity as the bottom line goal of effective prose.

Our publishing house relies on The Chicago Manual of Style as our bible, so we do have a well-thumbed standard. We strictly enforce the use of the serial comma, yet our chief copy editor tends to under-comma.

When I began to edit for this company, I relied on my academic training and classroom experience. But slowly I've calmed my comma usage. Having one foot in the stately past and the other in the zipping present is a comfortable stance for me.

From Dani: I would also add that it's more appropriate to put the book titles in italics rather than ALL CAPS, and also to include all of the book title in lowercase italics. Or is it lower-case? Or lower case? Depends on the house style and editor, I suppose. Further, wouldn't "manuscript" be better written out, or at least abbreviated as "ms." rather than without the period"? Please leave us your opinion in the comments.

Written by Marvin D Wilson, author of-
I ROMANCED THE STONE (Memoirs of a Recovering Hippie) And OWEN FIDDLER (A Modern Day Parable)
Marvin blogs at Free Spirit: Twitter him at:

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Far Out

Ideally an author and an editor cooperate to create an even better manuscript. The author offers the product of her imagination and experience. The editor reminds her of her audience and the standard rules that will help readers understand her book. My finest and most memorable editing usually occurs when I dialogue with an author.

Several years ago I was honored to copyedit Lee Lynch’s novel Sweet Creek and among my suggestions told her that, according to Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition (the standard for our book company), the word “far-out” needs a hyphen.

Lee had accepted all my suggested revisions but balked on this one. She insisted that the word was “far out.” I put on my English-professor hat and loftily explained that it has been around since 1954 and that compound words evolve from two separate words (far out), to a hyphenated word (far-out), and eventually to one word (farout). I concluded my mini-lecture but stating, “We’re now in the word’s second stage of evolution, so it should be written ‘far-out.’”

She politely kept insisting that “far out” doesn’t have a hyphen. After several exchanges, I discarded my scholarly mind-set and finally realized what she meant. Chick, the character who uses the term in Lee’s book, still clings to her hippie past, and even though the book is set in 2001 and technically the word had already become “far-out” by then, Chick has been formed by her experience during the sixties and seventies. Therefore, she would say “far out,” with a huge space between the two words.

Lee taught me that an editor needs to listen to the author she’s working with and to allow the author to break the rules when she needs and deserves leeway. To me that’s far out, as is Lee’s Sweet Creek.

Shelley Thrasher has a PhD in English and specializes in editing novels written by women. She spends most of her time style-editing for Bold Strokes Books. She also enjoys writing poetry and novels, which you can find on Amazon.