Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Snarky Cousin Is Back

Ah, my dearies, it appears that my cousin, The Style Maven, has run off somewhere. Perhaps with that charming-in-all-ways cabana boy that we saw last week at the club. I've called and called and looked and looked, but she is nowhere to be found. Of course, her mother, my dear Aunt Sadie, denies that her darling daughter would do such a thing, but I know my cousin better than her mother does.

Enough said about that before I let loose a little secret or two that I'd rather not. I'm sure my cousin will be back when she tires of her little "vacation," but in the meantime, I must do my best to continue in the fine tradition of writing lessons masked in humor and snark that she established oh so well here.

You may recall that  a few weeks ago, I wrote about body parts, that some authors move about all willy nilly - namely eyes - without giving a thought to the fact that eyes do not like to roll all over the place as if they have lost their sockets. Since then, I have stumbled rather unstylishly over some other awkward wordage in books I've been reading. Those annoying little issues pop up like those ugly weeds in my flower garden, and I would like to take a hoe to them. Unfortunately, the problems are in books that are already published, so I cannot take hoe, nor Blood-Red Pencil, to them. I must simply sigh and either move on with the reading or toss the book onto my worm farm and let those little buggers get to work on it.

First let's consider the ever-popular "shrugging shoulders." As if one would shrug with any other part of his or her body. One clever author once wrote, "He lifted one shoulder in a slight shrug." That, my dearies, is the only time one needs to add "shoulders" to the shrug. When there is something unusual going on. Otherwise, you must always just let your people shrug, and I do hope the paradigm will soon catch on. Then my blood pressure will no longer put me in danger of exploding as I settle in to enjoy another literary offering.

Dear, dear writers, the same restraint should be shown in regard to nodding heads. In the last opus I was attempting to enjoy, the characters were all so agreeable they were nodding their heads like little dashboard duckies almost on every page. I soon started yelling at the book, "Could you just stop already? What the hell else would people nod? Feet?"

Of  course, yelling did no good. So I took a blood-pressure pill, waited a moment and attempted to be a little more civil, "Please, dear writer, there is no need to tell the reader what your character is nodding. We get it. I'll say it again. WE GET IT. And don't continue to insult your reader's intelligence by being so precise in your description."

I'll admit it. Along about page 50 in that latest book, I was feeling a bit insulted. So instead of finishing the read and hopping over to Amazon to leave a glowing review, that book went to the worm farm, and they scarfed it right up. Too bad they can't type.

Perhaps writers have not stopped to really think about the fact that there is only one part of a body that nods. Or their defense is that other writers "nod heads" all the time. Fine. Ignore me. Do that if you will. But copying other writers may not put you on the road to literary success. And, as my mother used to say, "If other writers jumped in front of a train, would you?"

Actually, she said, "jump off a bridge," but as one kind editor here pointed out a few weeks ago, we should strive for originality in our writing.

Now, I must be off, as I do want to find my cousin's cabana boy. Not that I necessarily want to find my cousin, you understand. It's just my turn for a little vacation. Do wish me luck. Ta, ta.

Well, darn, Snarky Cousin has dashed off before scheduling her post. Although one could hardly blame her for her haste considering her quest. Again, we must thank Maryann Miller for noticing and making sure the post got scheduled.

Maryann Miller - novelist, editor and sometimes actress. She won her first writing award at age twelve with a short story in the Detroit News Scholastic Writing Awards Contest and continues to garner recognition for her short stories, books, and screenplays. You can find out more about Maryann, her books, and her editing services on her Website and her Amazon Author Pageread her  Blogand follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Writers on Their Toes

~ Editor/Author/Publisher Mysti Berry is our guest at the Blood-Red Pencil today. ~

I’d like to share with you the most marvelous discoveries of my first adventure as a publisher. Editing a charity anthology LOW DOWN DIRTY VOTE was my first time editing a collection. The process was a series of delightful discoveries punctuated by occasional fits of swearing at the software. I’ll spare you the swearing but share what I learned about crime writers during this madcap adventure.

 Discovery #1: Crime Writers are Generous 

Exhausted by my own pointless rage-tweeting and desperate to do something useful, I decided to publish an anthology of crime short stories to raise money to help fight voter suppression. I invited writer friends and writers who are barely more than acquaintances to contribute.

Nearly all of them said yes.

This astonished me, because most of the writers in the anthology are well published—he or she has something to lose if a story shows up in a low-quality book. It was my first attempt at publication, and yet these wonderful writers trusted me! And they were all keen to support the effort to make sure everyone who is entitled to vote is able to vote.

Some writers' schedules were too packed to contribute, but they helped in other ways by providing “blurbs” recommending the book or sharing freely their own experiences with publishing. All of these generous acts enabled me to put together a wonderful anthology with the best possible print-on-demand distribution. The book would not have happened without their many generous acts.

Discovery #2: Crime Writers are Professional 

Writers didn't turn stories in late. No one insisted that they were more important than anyone else. Each writer was cheerful and supportive as I stumbled along. Contributors recommended new writers who would be great additions to the book. I’ll always be grateful that the writers gently nudged me when I made silly mistakes (I’ll never misspell “Foreword” again!). They each pitched in to help with publicity. They set about hand-selling the book, even though it is a small charity anthology and I am a first-time publisher. Working with people who know how to behave professionally is a true joy.

Discovery #3: If You Give Them Freedom, Crime Writers Will Rise Up On Their Toes

 Does this one sound odd? Let me explain. You see, Tom Hanks once said that doing voice-over work for animation wasn’t easier than acting in person, it was harder because you had to do all the acting that your body and face does, but with just your voice. He said it was like acting on your toes (like a ballerina).

I gave the writers a theme, “fighting voter suppression,” no word limit, and no other rules about sub-genre or tone. Each writer, completely independent of the others, produced a truly original work, often far outside his or her comfort zone. Whether the stories experimented with point of view, time period, form, or subject matter, each writer’s unique voice rings true and each writer’s vision is unlike any other.

These stories range from a humorous private eye tale to deadly serious suspense, and everything in between. Because crime readers are omnivores, consuming good stories in a variety of sub-genres, they will enjoy the variety and revel in the excitement, honesty, and charm that these writers delivered in LOW DOWN DIRTY VOTE.

There’s on last realization more than discovery that makes me want to praise these writers. The accepted wisdom for many years has been that writers of crime fiction should avoid politics. If we don’t, we’ve been told, we’ll risk alienating one set of readers or another. However, there is a difference between writing thinly veiled defenses of one or another policy positions (politics), and doing what these writers have done, which is defend basic human rights with all their storytelling power, infusing their work with timeless meaning and resonance. Crime fiction readers, like crime fiction writers, aren’t afraid to explore the gap between who we say we are, and who we really are. This fact makes me so glad that I’ve chosen to write crime fiction. You couldn’t belong to a better club!

In addition to being editor/publisher of LOW DOWN DIRTY VOTE, Mysti Berry is a technical writer, a screenwriter, and a short story writer. In her own words: "From Comic-Con to the Caribbean, my short stories show the gap between who we pretend to be and who we really are." Learn more about Mysti at MystiBerry.com.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

What is a Sentence?

Photo by Sean Mason, via Flickr
Oxford English Dictionaries online defines a sentence as ”A set of words that is complete in itself, typically containing a subject and predicate, conveying a statement, question, exclamation, or command, and consisting of a main clause and sometimes one or more subordinate clauses.”

In fiction, an enormous amount of leeway is given in sentence length and structure according to the novel’s genre. Short sentences increase tension in thrillers that feature fast-paced scenes. Dialogue-heavy fiction gives the author an opportunity to play with fragments and short, snappy exchanges. The secret is to understand what a sentence is before messing around with it.

One of greatest failings of modern education is the removal of sentence diagramming from the study of writing. Editor Linda Lane explored this topic in her Blood-Red Pencil post, Excuse Me, Please, I Need a Diagram. Linda noted, “Knowing the parts of speech helps us use words most effectively to create sentences that touch our readers and pull them into our stories.”

Authors in all genres use complex sentences with multiple dependent clauses and phrases as well as simple, short sentences. The writer, however, needs to be aware of his intended audience and avoid fancy words and sentence structure if his readers simply want a good story with interesting characters. Our sentences need to pull the reader into the action, drama, and setting without making her stop to admire a pretty arrangement of words.

The writer also needs to be aware of the editor’s eagle eye. Even though an incorrectly constructed sentence might be effective once or twice, habitual grammatical errors will brand the writer as an amateur.

My critique group recently had a discussion of sentence structure based on sentence length and complexity. One member translated this sentence from Thomas Mann’s Lotte in Weimar to demonstrate a long and complicated sentence that holds together despite multiple clauses, parenthetical asides, and lots of commas:

"But the bad part, what made me so fearful and gave me such a burning shock, was, that the young man offered the girl his heart, which he said was young like hers, created to discover the distant, veiled moments of bliss in this world (that’s how he expressed it) and in whose invigorating company (how could I not have recognized the ‘invigorating company’!) she should strive towards the golden prospect of everlasting togetherness (I am quoting verbatim) and undying weaving love in close togetherness.”

Contrast this with the first sentence from Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca: "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again." Then compare that short, effective statement with a later observation the narrator makes about her dream. "And there were other trees as well, trees that I did not recognize, squat oaks and tortured elms that straggled cheek by jowl with the beeches, and had thrust themselves out of the quiet earth, along with monster shrubs and plants, none of which I remembered."

Ernest Hemingway was the master of the short sentence. In his short story, The Killers, he wrote: "Outside it was getting dark. The street-light came on outside the window. The two men at the counter read the menu."

A writer accustomed to reading the longer, more complicated sentences of Mann or du Maurier might want to emulate their styles but not know the grammar rules that would prevent short cuts such as a run-on sentence, a string of sentences connected by conjunctions, or even a comma-splice: Outside it was getting dark, the street-light came on outside the window, the two men at the counter read the menu.

We like to play with sentences when writing fiction, but it’s important to learn and understand good writing before we wander off to do our own thing. To read more about run-on sentences and comma splices as well as other grammar issues, check out the online Guide to Grammar and Writing from Capital Community College Foundation.

For a few tips on reviewing your own sentences during your self-editing process, read Self-Editing One Step at a Time: Fine-Tuning Sentence Structure, one of the posts in my self-editing series.

Pat (Patricia) Stoltey is the author of four novels published by Five Star/Cengage: two amateur sleuth, one thriller that was a finalist for a Colorado Book Award in 2015, and the historical mystery Wishing Caswell Dead (December 20, 2017), a finalist for the 2018 Colorado Book Awards.

Pat lives in Northern Colorado with her husband Bill, Scottish Terrier Sassy (aka Doggity), and brown tabby Katie (aka Kitty Cat).

You can learn more about Pat at her website/blog, on Facebook, and Twitter. She was recently interviewed for a Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers podcast that you can find at the RMFW website.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Is Editing a Dying Art?

Image by Mr Clementi, via Flickr
Like the English language, the landscape of professional editing is an ever-changing kaleidoscope. We've come a long way from the days of the legendary Maxwell Perkins, the Charles Scribner editor who first discovered and published F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe. Perkins had running battles with the poetic but entirely undisciplined Wolfe, but ultimately convinced the author to let him cut 90,000 words from Look Homeward, Angel, a seminal novel that would have been indecipherable (not to mention unpublishable) in its original form.

Back then book editors were gatekeepers and kingmakers. They were both despised and revered. Today, opinions tend to run more to the "despised" side of the equation. I doubt many of us, no matter how excellent our work, feel much revered. Like so many jobs in the Arts, our profession has fallen a long way.

Other than acquisition editors who buy books for publication, most publishing houses have eliminated the majority of their full time editing jobs. There are few in-house developmental editors, copy editors, line editors or proofreaders working for major publishers now. The work is subbed out to freelancers.

Freelance editing rates have fallen precipitously. We're lucky to earn a thousand dollars for a complex developmental edit for a major publisher that would once have commanded two to eight times that amount. I often find myself working for far less than minimum wage because while our payment is fixed, the number of hours required to do an excellent job is not.

The self-publishing revolution hurt as well. Many self-published authors do not believe their manuscripts require editing. They had their Great Aunt Thelma, who taught English during the Depression and is legally blind, look over their book and she declared it was fine, and that's good enough for them.

I hear stories like this all the time. Authors relay them with a self-satisfied air as if they were schooling me on the all-too-obvious fact (at least to them) that there is no actual need for my existence. In so speaking, they betray an almost complete misunderstanding of what an editor actually does.

Yes, we'll find your typos and grammatical errors and fix them and yes, perhaps Aunt Thelma could do the same. But professional editors do so much more. We help authors look deep into the heart of their work and coax out the best possible version of their story. We repair the disconnects, iron out the inconsistencies, help them inject emotion into their writing, and counsel them to make sure every single paragraph in the manuscript is moving the story along.

In answer to the question posed in the title, is editing a dying art? Yes, in many ways I believe it is. But there will always be stubborn editors like me and many others, willing to fight to defend the highest and best use of our beautiful and incredibly expressive language to tell great stories. And if I have to be one of those jousting eternally with that particular windmill…well, I can think of worse fates.

Patricia B. Smith is a journalist who is the author of 11 published books, including Idiot’s Guide: Flipping Houses, Alzheimer's For Dummies and Sleep Disorders for Dummies.

Pat is also an experienced professional developmental editor who serves as an Editorial Evaluation and Developmental Coordinator for Five Star Publishing. She works with private clients as well and has helped many authors land their first publishing contracts. Many of her clients have achieved notable success, including two winners of the Missouri Writers’ Guild Show-me Best Book of the Year Award.

Connect with Pat on Facebook, Twitter, or Linked In.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

The Antagonist Role in Romance

Loves stories are primarily about two characters who meet, are attracted, face a set of challenges, and overcome those challenges to live happily ever after. They have friends who are thrilled for them and foes who are not so thrilled.

Do you really need an evil lord or a psychotic killer to keep them apart? Not unless you are writing a paranormal or crime thriller.

Do you really need an antagonist at all? No, if you want to keep the tone light and conflict mild, friends and foes can cause enough mischief. But you do need antagonistic characters.

If someone in your lovers’ story world is dead set on keeping them apart and actively working against them, the potential for breakup conflict is higher. Your job as a romance writer is to instill doubt in the reader that your love interests will end up happily ever after. There are several types of antagonism to draw from. Let’s look at a few:

1. Disapproving parents or family members.

2. Disapproving best friend who rejects the new partner’s “otherness,” or resents the fact that his/her friend is now too busy to spend time with him/her, or the lover is changing to please the new partner so much the best friend no longer recognizes him/her.

3. The jealous ex-lover who fights to get the lover back or just makes sure no one else has him or her.

4. A powerful society figure who disapproves based on cultural, racial, etc. differences. It could be a religious leader, gang leader, or mafia boss. It could be a fraternity or sorority leader, or the head of a secret organization.

5. A boss who needs his employee to focus and the relationship is detrimental to his business plans (for a multitude of reasons).

6. A boss who needs the lover or love interest to move to a new city or country. The couple’s bonds are truly tested: who is willing to sacrifice how much to stay together?

7. An employee or coworker who wants the love interest and now has to admit how s/he feels.

8. A boss or friend encourages the love interest to do a favor that offends the love interest or the lover agrees to take on a job that is against the love interest’s morals or beliefs (political, religious, etc.).

9. Someone from a past, secret life who threatens to expose one of the lovers. Should the lover come clean or find a way to remove the threat?

10. Someone becomes a new responsibility for one of your lovers: a child, such as a niece or nephew, or a parent who is suddenly ill and has to move in. Perhaps the lover will have to relocate to take care of someone.

The important thing is to make the reader doubt an outcome that is inevitable: the happy ending.

For more on how to create your lovers, check out Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, Story Building Blocks: Build A Cast Workbook, and Story Building Blocks Build A Plot Workbook: Romance which are available in both print and Kindle.

Diana Hurwitz is the author of Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict, Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers, and the YA adventure series Mythikas Island. Her weekly blog, Game On: Crafting Believable Conflict explores how characters behave and misbehave. Visit DianaHurwitz.com for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.