Thursday, March 28, 2019

Finding the Best Way to Write

I read voraciously, a habit I recommend to any author who doesn't already have it. You'll subconsciously pick up on what does and doesn't work. Characterization, dialogue, pacing, plot, story, setting, description, etc. But more importantly, someone who doesn't enjoy reading will never write something that someone else will enjoy reading.

I don't write 'for the market.' I know I can't, so I just write for me and then try to find readers who like what I like. I'm not trying to whip up the next bestseller and get rich. Not that I'd complain. Nope, I have to write what's in my heart, then go find a market later. It makes marketing a challenge at times, but I wouldn't have it any other way.

When you write, be a dreamer. Go nuts. Know that you're writing pure gold. That fire is why we write.

An author who I truly admire, Kurt Vonnegut, sweated out each individual sentence. He wrote it, rewrote it, and didn't leave it alone until it was perfect. Then when he was done, he was done.

I doubt most of us write like that. I don't. I let it fly as fast as my fingers can move across the paper or keyboard, rushing to capture my ideas before they get away. Later, I change and shuffle and slice.

James Michener claimed that he wrote the last sentence of a manuscript first, then had his goal before him as he wrote his way to it.

Then there's me. No outline whatsoever. I create characters and conflict, spending days and weeks on that task, until the first chapter really leaves me wondering 'How will this end?' Then my characters take over, and I'm as surprised as the reader when I finish my story.

Some authors set aside a certain number of hours every day for writing, or a certain number of words. In short, a writing schedule.

Then there's me. No writing for three or six months, then a flurry of activity where I forget to eat, sleep, bathe, change the cat's litter... I'm a walking stereotype. To assuage the guilt, I tell myself that my unconscious is hard at work. As Hemingway would say, long periods of thinking and short periods of writing.

I've shown you the extremes in writing styles. I think most authors fall in the middle somewhere. But my point is, find out what works for you. You can read about how other writers do it, and if that works for you, great. But in the end, find your own way. That's what writers do.

Just don't do it halfway.

If you're doing what I do, writing a story that entertains and moves you, then you will find readers who share your tastes. For some of us that means a niche market and for others it means regular appearances on the bestseller list.

Writing is a calling, but publishing is a business. Remember that AFTER you've written your manuscript. Not during.

Michael LaRocca has been paid to edit since 1991 and still loves it, which has made people question his sanity (but they were doing that before he started editing). Michael got serious about writing in 1978. Although he’s retired more times than Brett Favre, Michael is writing his 19th book. Learn more about him at, GoodReads, or Amazon.

Image of stack of books by Sarah Lötscher from Pixabay

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

So You Think You Have an Original Plot. Think again.

So you think you have an original story idea. Um, think again.

Christopher Booker, who took thirty-eight years to write The Seven Basic Plots, subtitled, Why We Tell Stories, boiled down all the plots to these:

Overcoming the Monster
Rags to Riches
The Quest
Voyage and Return

Every story plot derives from one of these themes, according to Booker. I can see how a writer could manipulate her plot to fit into one of these, except maybe Riches to Rags, but that’s tragedy then, isn’t it? I won’t bust your bubble, but whatever storyline you are working on, someone has done it before―thousands of times. Now if that isn’t a downer, I don’t know what is. Your job, should you choose to accept it, is to create something different, knowing it's impossible. 

There are dozens of books on how to write a novel. Many teach structure: In The Hero’s Journey, Joseph Campbell’s narrative arc, refined by Christopher Vogler in The Writer’s Journey, the hero’s journey is defined in twelve-stages. It stresses that the hero in every story is the same but presented in different forms.

Outline or wing it? I attended a writing seminar where Jeffrey Deaver said his outline sometimes extends to 800 pages. What? I’ve read a lot of Deaver, and if it’s one thing I can expect it’s to know the bad guy is no one you expect.

There are positives on both sides, but how many people really follow their outline? Does doing so leave no room for a creative path? I'm a pantser―one who writes by the seat of her pants. However, I wish I had done a more thoughtful approach, or at least a timeline, to the book I’m working on now, because I had to go back and rewrite part of it when I realized I lost a day somewhere in the story. A lesson learned.

Then there’s Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method, where you start with a simple premise and expand upon it, adding complexity in character and plot until you turn a one-sentence idea into a complete novel. I’d say this is the closest to my process. For me, it’s an idea about a character and a “what if” situation.

A man who spent fifteen years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit is accused of a similar murder.

A call girl is blackmailed into working for the police or go to prison for tax evasion.

A blind psychologist helps a deaf cop cope with his disability, while he protects her from an unseen stalker.

A psychic is targeted by a psychic serial killer playing a deadly game.

When I started writing, I knew NOTHING. I took courses, read books on writing, on plotting, on the technical aspects, and everything else I didn’t know. I hired an editor when I thought I had something good enough—it wasn’t—and learned more from him. He edited three books for me. It was like taking a private writing course in sentence structure. But there was something he didn’t know, which I didn’t know he didn’t know, until much later. To this day, I need an editor, and even writers who know all the rules need one.

Using some of the aforementioned constructions are good beginnings, but it also leads to overthinking a project. Staying “within the lines” and thinking “inside the box” can also produce a formulaic piece of work. Necessary in the beginning? A qualified yes, and here’s why. We have to know the basics in order to create something different in much the same way that Picasso studied and painted in the classical manner before he could evolve into abstract expressionism and cubism.

The longer one writes, the more those basic tenets become second nature. That leaves a writer free to go outside the lines and create something outside the box. Think of your favorite writers. Study their early work and their later work. Of course, once a writer has a name, she can stretch and take chances. Now, isn’t that fun?

How do you work, and what methods do you employ?

Polly Iyer is the author of nine novels: standalones Hooked, InSight, Murder Déjà Vu, Threads, and Indiscretion, and four books in the Diana Racine Psychic Suspense series, Mind Games, Goddess of the Moon, Backlash and The Scent of Murder. A Massachusetts native, she makes her home in the beautiful Piedmont region of South Carolina. You can visit her website for more on Polly and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Writers Gotta Read, Right? March on!

Just because St. Patrick's Day has come and gone, it doesn't mean we can't read books with a bit of a "green theme." Other holidays in March offer some themes as well. How about Pi Day (March 14?) or the Ides of March (March 15)? Or spring equinox (March 20)?
Sooooo let's see what's out there to whet your reading appetite. Let's start with St. Patrick's.

Wear (or plant?) some green this month.
National Library of Ireland on The Commons [No restrictions]
Now, how about Pi Day? Here are three recommendations from Book Riot and a list of Math-Inspired Reads for Pi Day from the Palo Alto City Library (including a few mysteries).

That's another way to enjoy your pi while reading.
Amit Patel from Silicon Valley, CA [CC BY 2.0 (]
Moving along, the Seattle Public Library provides a reading list of "betrayal and backstabbers," perfect for the Ides of March, as does Book Riot.

Horde of angry librarians: "Julius! You have not returned your copy of The Thousandth Floor, an angsty teen science fiction that captures the backstabbing tendencies of teens!"
Julius Caesar: "But... I'm almost done with it. Just give me until March 16th!"

 By William Holmes Sullivan (1836-1908) - Self-photographed, Public Domain,

If you are looking for books that are set in March, any time in March, I have the perfect list for you: Listopia's Books to Read Some March.

I'll admit I didn't find any reading lists focused on the spring equinox, so I thought I'd add a Dying for Chocolate link for an easy recipe for Bailey's Irish Cream Fudge instead. Enjoy!

If anyone has any favorite March-theme-inspired books to add, please comment and let us know.

A LATE-BREAKING ADDENDUM: Books for International Women's Day!

Ann Parker authors the award-winning Silver Rush historical mystery series published by Poisoned Pen Press. During the day, she wrangles words for a living as a science editor/writer and marketing communications specialist (which is basically a fancy term for "editor/writer"). Her midnight hours are devoted to scribbling fiction. Visit for more information.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Don't Let Plagiarism Kill Your Career

Graphic courtesy of
In case you missed it, there has been a recent controversy over plagiarism that has received international news attention. A story in The Guardian outlines the major points of the issue between American author Courtney Milan and Brazilian author Cristiane Serruya, who was accused of  plagiarism. The books in question are Milan's The Duchess War and Royal Love by Serruya.

There were numerous instances of Serruya taking several sentences verbatim from Milan's book, and the following is just one example of what she copied:

From The Duchess War - There was a reason they’d kept their conversations to inane niceties up until this point. There was no way to talk about anything else without bitterness. They had no common past to draw on, almost no shared acquaintances. His mother had spent more time visiting Sebastian’s mother—her husband’s sister—than she had lived in Robert’s household as a child.

And she’d chosen to do it. He might have forgiven her at one time. At one time, he would have forgiven her anything.

From Royal Love - There was a reason they’d kept their conversations to inane niceties up until this point. There was no way to talk about anything else without bitterness. They had no common past to draw on, almost no shared acquaintances. His mother had spent more time visiting her lovers and friends than she had stayed with him when, as a child, he came to spend the holidays in Lektenstaten. And she’d chosen to do it. He might have forgiven her at one time. At one time, he would have forgiven her anything.  

If you'd like to see more examples you can find a list of them on Milan's BLOG.

Nora Roberts has a wonderful blog post that stems from this mess of plagiarism and Serrurya. Currently there are 85 books and 36 authors involved. On Twitter you can follow #CopyPasteCrisis  if you really want to spend a lot of time reading about this. Me? I'd rather be writing.

Back when I was working primarily as a journalist, one thing was impressed upon me by editors and other nonfiction writers, and that was the respect shown to other writers by knowing how much one could cite from a book or article without crossing the line into plagiarism. Basically, we could use quotes from other sources as long as we gave them proper credit, and we only used a sentence or two. If we were paraphrasing from a source, we still had to name the publication and the writer.

For instance, if I wanted to take material directly from that story in the Guardian I mentioned earlier, I would cite it by: According to a story in The Guardian by Alison Flood, "Bestselling Brazilian romance novelist Cristiane Serruya has pulled one of her novels from sale after she was accused of plagiarizing some of the biggest authors in the genre."

We were taught to be ethical because being accused of plagiarism can destroy a writer's career and  affect the credibility of the publication. A case in point is what happened to Jayson Blair who resigned from The New York Times in 2003 after it was discovered that he lifted material from other writers throughout his years at the Times. Both Blair and The Times took a big hit. The film "A Fragile Trust: Plagiarism Power and Jayson Blair" by Samantha Grant, premiered on PBS Independent Lens in 2014, and it lays out the whole story.

There are some great resources on the internet for learning how to use quotes, the difference between quoting and plagiarism, and how to paraphrase from a source. On one can find a number of informative articles covering many aspects for academic, as well as commercial, writing. Some interesting cases of notable people who were accused of plagiarism can be found in this article 5 Great People Who Plagiarized written by Jonathan Bailey at Plagiarism Today.

In another case of a career being ruined because of plagiarism, Johah Lehrer left The New Yorker in 2012 after admitting he made up quotes in some of his articles. That didn't make quite as big a splash as the Blair case, but it was enough to sideline his career for a while. More recently, questions of plagiarism have surfaced again as noted in this article in The Guardian by Steven Poole, talking about the 2016 release of Lehrer's latest book, Imagine. The book has since been pulled from bookstores.

We're reading and discussing Rebecca in a literature class I'm taking, and I found it coincidentally interesting that Daphne Du Maurier was once accused of plagiarism by a Brazilian author Carolina Nabuco. Nabuco claimed that Du Maurier took passages from The Successor when writing Rebecca. The allegations were never proven one way or another, although more allegations surface now and then when other cases of work being taken from Brazilian writers and musicians pop up. This 2002 article, Tiger in a Lifeboat, Panther in a Lifeboat - A Furor Over a Novel written in The New York Times by Larry Rohter, points out several instances of artistic property being stolen.

The main focus of the article is on author Yann Martel who won the Man Booker Prize that year for his novel Life of Pi, and the fact that he took the premise of his story from the book Max And the Cats by Moacyr Scliar, published in 1981. Toward the end of the article, Rohter mentions the controversy over the novel Rebecca and The Successor, "The Novels have identical plots and even some identical episodes."

Have you ever suspected your work was being plagiarized? What did you do? Would you like to check your work for possible plagiarism issues? You can do so with Grammarly, a site with monthly fees, or NoPlag that is free. Another site that is available is BibMe, which appears to be geared more toward academic writing than commercial writing, but could be helpful to freelance journalists. You can get a basic subscription to their services for free, which does include checking for plagiarism, and a premium subscription offers help with the actual writing, sentence structure, verb usage, etc. That could be helpful for students writing high school or college papers.

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 TwitterHer online workshop on self-editing, part of a series of online writing workshops from Short And Helpful, can be found HERE

Thursday, March 14, 2019

There’s No One-Size-Fits-All Solution for Procrastination

Last week I was reading The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield. It’s a best seller with lots of good reviews. And some not so good. Read the not-so-good ones before buying this book.

I had borrowed the book from the library because I was interested in the Pressfield’s observations about procrastination and what makes creative folks fight their creativity, sabotaging that internal drive to make art. It’s all about Resistance, he says. If you read the book, you’ll get used to seeing that word over and over: Resistance.

Pressfield says he has the answer to all our procrastination problems. Become a pro by acting like a pro. Show up to work every day. Show up at the same time every day, prepared to create. Then create.

Okay, I thought. I can do that. The next morning, even though I’d had only one cup of coffee and felt foggy and sleep-deprived, I hurried to my computer and sat down, ready to work.

My second cup of coffee sat on the little cup heater, waiting, while I attempted to make my mind and body conform to my preconceived notion (carried over from my real-world working days) of the “right time to show up for work.”

I moved the mouse around, opened Word, and fetched my To Do List. Without hesitation, I moved the mouse around again to open my work in progress, a 72,000 manuscript in the 2nd revision phase.

That’s when the fog wrapped itself around my brain, interfering with the messages the brain should have been sending to my typing fingers.

Instead of Open, I clicked on Save As. I selected my manuscript file, hit Save, agreed to replace the file, and then stared at the screen, wondering why my To Do List was still displayed. Then I noticed its file name at the top of the page.

I’m not sure I can explain the emotion. Cold washed over my body from head to toe. Then heat roared up from my gut to my face. Was it dismay? Terror? I double-checked, trying to retrieve my manuscript. It wasn’t there! I now had two copies of my To Do List with two different file names.

Then I took a deep breath. The fog lifted just enough to prevent a potential stroke or heart attack. I stared at the little blue and silver flash on my mouse pad.

That’s where I keep a second copy of my up-to-date manuscript, saved after making any change. Every time. Without fail.

Very, very carefully, I inserted my flash drive and retrieved my good file. I saved it to the computer, overwriting the extra To Do List. I carefully closed the Word documents and removed the flash drive. Then I went back into Word to check. Yes. Everything was back to normal.

I took another deep breath, drank my coffee, then went downstairs and put The War of Art on the coffee table to be returned to the library on my next trip. Yes, I do suffer from bouts of procrastination. Yes, Pressfield’s concept of Resistance makes sense. And No, I do not blame Steven Pressfield for my mistake.

We need to read and analyze advice without automatically jumping on a bandwagon or immersing ourselves in the latest popular fad. It doesn’t matter if we’re trying to beat a severe attack of procrastination, trying to master the art of minimalism, or fighting an addiction to reality television. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to any problem.

I know I can't always function well first thing in the morning. I know I can't write every day. I know that what works for one person may not work for another. If others want to call it Resistance, that's fine. I'll call it "Doing Things My Way."

For an alternative view of Pressfield's book, read Morgan Mandel's 2013 post called Fight the Good Fight.

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 the Colorado Sun’s SunLit feature that you can find at the Colorado Sun website.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Writing Workshops April to June 2019

Whether a one day session, one week conference, or a month-long writing workshop writing related events are a good way to commune with other writers. They are opportunities to network and get your name out there. In some instances, you can meet and mingle with editors and agents. Some offer critiques or pitching sessions. Nowhere will you find a higher concentration of introverts enjoying each other's company.

Local conferences are a good place to meet potential critique groups or recruit members.

Some are free. Some require a fee. Some are more social than others. Many are for new writers, but a few dig deep into craft. You should choose an event that speaks to your needs and desires.

April 2-4, 2020 Erma Bombeck Writers' Workshop, University of Dayton, Dayton, Ohio they are skipping 2019, but you can keep up with them at

April 5-8, 2019 Writing By Writers Manuscript Boot Camp, Tahoe City, California 

April 5-7, 2019 The Muse and the Marketplace, Boston Park Plaza Hotel, Boston, MA

April 5-7, 2019 Ravencon 14 Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention, Williamsburg, Virginia

April 9-15, 2019 Free Expressions Seminars--Writing the Breakout Novel Featuring Donald Maas, Hood River, Oregon

April 20-May 2, 2020 Chicago North RWA Spring Fling Conference is skipping 2019 and taking up again in 2020. Visit their website for updates.

April 26 – April 28, 2019 Chanticleer Authors Conference, Bellingham, Washington

April 26-27, 2019 Northeast RWA Let Your Imagination Take Flight Conference, Burlington, MA.

May 3-5, 2019 Pikes Peak Writers Conference, Registration Jan-March, Colorado Springs Marriott, Colorado Springs, Colorado

May 3-5, 2019 Malice Domestic Convention, Bethesda, MD

May 3-4, 2019 Northern Colorado Writers Conference, Fort Collins Marriott, Colorado

May 3-4, 2019 Atlanta Writers Conference, Atlanta, Georgia

May 5-6, 2019 The American Society of Journalists and Authors Conference (ASJA), New York City, New York,

May 9-12, 2019 Stokercon 2019 Horror Conference, Grand Rapids, Michigan

May 9-12, 2019 Crimefest in Bristol, Bristol, England, United Kingdom

May 15-19, 2019 Book Lovers Convention, New Orleans, LA 

May 17 - 21, 2019 Writeaway by the River Workshop, Camden, North Carolina

May 18-20, 2019 Pennwriters Conference, Lancaster, PA

May 19-23, 2019 Blue Ridge Christian Writer’s Conference, Asheville, North Carolina,

May 20-24, 2019 Boldface Conference for Emerging Writers, University of Houston, Texas

May 29 - June 1, 2019 North Words Writers Symposium, Skagway, Alaska

June 2019 TBA The Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation (VONA), Miami, Florida

June TBA, 2019: Algonkian New York Pitch Conference

June 1-5, 2019 Indiana University Writers' Conference, Bloomington, Indiana

June 9-14, 2019 8th Annual West of the Moon Writer’s Retreat, New Harmony, Indiana

June 9-29, 2019 Summer Writing Program, The Capitalocene Naropa University, Boulder, Colorado

June 9-14, 2019 Tinker Mountain Writers, Hollins University, Virginia

June 12-16, 2019 Wesleyan Writers Conference, Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT

June 13-23, 2019 Pacific University Residency Writers Conference, Forest Grove, Oregon

June 14-18, 2019 Kachemak Bay Writers Conferenece, Kachemak Bay Campus, Kenai Peninsula College, Alaska

June 16-21, 2019 Santa Barbara Writers Conference, Santa Barbara, California

June 17-20, 2019 Highlights Writing First Chapter Books and Early Readers, Milanville, PA

June 20-22, 2019 Kentucky Christian Writers Conference, Elizabethtown, Kentucky

June 22-23, 2019 DFW Writers Conference (DFWCon), Dallas- Fort Worth Texas

June 28-29, 2019 Writers' League of Texas Agents & Editors Conference, Austin, Texas

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 for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Oh My! Misplaced Modifiers

When I find misplaced modifiers in my own writing or in others (and usually I don't see it in my own until they are pointed out to me), I giggle like a delighted toddler. Everyone makes these grammatical goofs at one time or another. You find them in books, in signs, in Powerpoint presentations, in menu descriptions... the list goes on.

So, what is a misplaced modifier? If you ask Google, this is the definition that pops up:
a phrase or clause placed awkwardly in a sentence so that it appears to modify or refer to an unintended word.
 The best way to know them is to see them. Here is one example from
Tall and handsome, the people looked at him with awe and admiration. 
The way this sentence is set up, "tall and handsome" describes "people," not "him." So what can you do to fix poor misplaced modifier, so it points to "him?" Here's one solution: Because he was tall and handsome, the people looked at him with awe and admiration.

Your discusses modifiers and also has some great examples. I imagine the poor misplaced modifiers in the sentences below looking anxiously at their grammatical next-door neighbors and wondering how the heck they ended up in this neighborhood! (My commentary is in italics.)
  1. Eagerly awaiting her birthday, Mary's presents were all picked up and admired by Mary many times throughout the course of the day. Nnnnnoooooo those presents aren't jumping up and down in impatience, sorry. Mary is the one who just can't wait.
  2. She served sandwiches to the children on paper plates. What?? Those poor children! Forced to sit on paper plates! Oh wait. The sandwiches are on the plates.
  3. She saw a puppy and a kitten on the way to the store. Wow, I wonder if that puppy and kitten are heading for the pet food aisle… Okay, "she" was going to the store, got it.  
  4. Three offices were reported robbed by the Atlanta police last week. Time out! The police robbed the offices?? I don't think so. I do believe they reported the crime though. 
 One way to fix these awkward juxtapositions is to nudge the offending phrase so it cozies up to the noun (or verb) it's modifying, and then tinker as needed:
  1. Eagerly awaiting her birthday, Mary picked up and admired her presents many times throughout the day. 
  2. She served the children sandwiches on paper plates.
  3. On the way to the store, she saw a puppy and a kitten. 
  4. Last week, the Atlanta police reported that three offices were robbed.
The Blood Red Pencil has addressed misplaced modifiers twice in the past. You can read about them in the post Grammar ABCs: M is for Misplaced Modifiers, and in this book review of Excuse Me, Your Participle Is Dangling!

There is also a nice little YouTube video by Georgia State University about dangling modifiers here.

For some hilarious examples—because who among us can't use a chuckle once in a while?—check out the slide show on the Scribendi article "Illustrated Misplaced Modifier Examples to Make You Smile." There is also this Ragan's PR Daily article, "Hilariously misplaced modifiers and other blunders."

I leave you with this final awkward thought:
After eating all their food, we put the dogs outside. I'm sure these poor dogs joined the cat in #3 above and they all decided to go to the shop for more food, because, well, those greedy humans! 
Why did you eat my food?? Now I have to go to the store for more!

Ann Parker authors the award-winning Silver Rush historical mystery series published by Poisoned Pen Press. During the day, she wrangles words for a living as a science editor/writer and marketing communications specialist (which is basically a fancy term for “editor/writer”). Her midnight hours are devoted to scribbling fiction. Visit for more information.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Comma or no comma, that is the question

Hello again, dearies! It's been a while since I've had a few moments to visit. Life has a way of taking us in down paths we had not planned. Ah, but I am here now, and a grammatical issues has again surfaced that needs to be addressed. What is it? The lowly comma.

Back in November of 2016, I addressed the Oxford comma, that pesky little piece of punctuation that often inspires great dispute. Having proven the necessity for that very important comma to avoid ambiguity and/or raised eyebrows, I want to bring to your attention some other uses for this all-important punctuation.

More and more, books, both traditionally and self published, are deviating from long established rules put into place for the purpose of clarity and flow. Our authority will be The Chicago Manual of Style Seventeenth Edition,  recently updated by the University of Chicago to address changes in reading habits, research options, the use of  new technologies that facilitate writing and publishing, and, of course, the punctuation that keeps our words, thoughts, and messages understandable. In this article, however, we will limit its vast resources to the proper use of the comma in short expressions and phrases, as well as its function in appositional structures.

Let's consider the following examples from a single story that demonstrate how the comma should and shouldn't be used in these cases.

Oh, my!
Oh my!
Oh, well!
Oh well!
Oh god, Jack.

One problem with the above examples is the lack of consistency. Writers and editors need to be consistent in following a publishers' punctuation guidelines. If a work is self-published, the writer should determine correct usage beforehand and apply it uniformly throughout the writing process.

Which comma usages are correct? According to CMOS 17 (6.33 - 6.35), informal narrative or dialogue does not require the comma after the introductory oh if the sentence or phrase is exclamatory. That indicates the second and fourth expressions are correct, which means the first and third are not. I can't find a direct reference to the fifth expression, but the end punctuation does not make it an exclamation. Let's reason on it. The phrase includes a noun of address: Jay (not god). The fact that oh god and oh my god are common expressions, however, creates another exception to the comma rule. That lovely little bit of punctuation is not required. (CMOS 6.35) Side note: whether or not an author refers to a specific deity or simply uses a common phrase should determine capitalization of the word god—but we will leave the proper use of capitals for another visit.

Before I leave, I want to say a few words about another use of commas that is often misunderstood: appositives. (CMOS 17, 6.28) Consider these examples. Nonrestrictive phrases or clauses should be set off by commas. Julia's son, Malcolm, accompanied her to the ballet. Julia has one son, so his name is additional information not required to identify him. Therefore, it should be enclosed by commas. On the other hand, necessary information, called a restrictive appositive, is not set off by commas. Her daughter Mira also attended the performance. Mira is one of three daughters, so a restrictive appositive is required to identify which daughter joined them. No commas. (If whether the appositive refers to the only one or to one of several is unknown, it is considered to be restrictive and is not enclosed in commas. Example: John's son Eric was in an accident. It is unknown whether Eric is John's only son or John also has other sons.)

Alas, duty calls. I must be going now. We have plenty of posts about the humble comma here on the Blood-Red Pencil, such as Shelley Thrasher's tips on Using Commas with Adjectives, and we'll explore more uses of the comma on a future visit. Until then, dearies, remember that a well-turned phrase is always in style.

Style Maven Linda Lane has returned to her first love—writing—while maintaining her editing work. Her novels fall into the literary category because they are character driven rather than plot driven, but their quick pace reminds the reader of genre fiction. They also contain elements of romance, mystery, and romance. You can contact her through websites: and

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Dialogue Tags and Action Tags

Standard dialogue tags are said and asked. The mind skips over them, so they are invisible.

"It is hotly debated whether you should ever use colorful or adverb tags," she muttered. "Some editors don't mind a few creative tags."

"Some may allow adverb tags," she said skeptically. "Adverb tags are generally frowned upon."

" Break this rule at your own peril," she said mischievously.

Your dialogue should look like one of these examples. Note the correct formatting. Commas, periods, and question marks should fall within the quotation marks.

A comma separates the dialogue from the standard tag. A period separates the dialogue from an action tag.

The same formatting for the standard tag applies to a creative tag or action tags.

No tag: "I see."

Standard tag in the front: Sherlock said, "I see."

Standard tag in the middle: "I see," Sherlock said. "I have been misinformed."

Standard tag at the end: "I see," Sherlock said. (or) "I see," said Sherlock.

Action tag in the front: Sherlock cleared his throat. "I see."

Action tag in the middle: "I see." Sherlock cleared his throat. "I was misinformed."

Action tag at the end: "I see." Sherlock cleared his throat.

Action combined with a standard tag: Sherlock pointed to the clock and said, "I must be off."

For more tips on how to make your dialogue work for you, check out our previous posts.

The Importance of Mystery in Dialogue

Dialogue is Not Necessarily How We Talk

Tips for Writing Effective Dialogue

Five Tips to Effective Dialogue

Say it With Gusto


Dialogue, just the way we talk?

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 for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.