Tag Archives: fundamentals of writing

Craft and Intention #amwriting

You’ve heard the saying, “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” A small amount of knowledge can lead to overconfidence. A person might leap to invalid conclusions based on what they know without considering the things they don’t know.

New authors eagerly soak up the wisdom offered through writing groups, seminars, and handbooks on the craft of writing.

It is only when we begin reading widely, and in many different genres, that we discover a difficult truth: great writing is not simply a matter of following rules.

I know, the editor is implying that grammar doesn’t matter.

But I am not, exactly.

What I am saying is that applying rigid rules to literature is akin to expecting your two-year-old to behave perfectly every moment of every day. The books that move me are young and wild and have occasional tantrums. They’re sometimes messy, dirty little things.

Producing a book is a form of parenthood. Like the unruly toddler, when an author puts her manuscript to bed at the end of the day, it’s the most amazing creature she has ever seen.

As an editor, sometimes I discover life in a manuscript that has broken all the rules.

Grammar rules exist for a purpose, and if done wrong, this breaking of certain rules can destroy a reader’s enjoyment of a story.

However, sometimes when it is done deliberately by someone who understands how to write, this work shines because the writer’s style struck the right chord. Life is a natural consequence of the rush of creativity and is set into the manuscript when the first words are written.

Unfortunately, it is easy to murder what began as a beautiful story. Consider those writers who spend years carefully combing every spark of accidental passion out of their work, creating textbook-perfect sentences that are flat, toneless. When the prose is perfectly flat, the author has no voice and the reader may have no desire to care about the characters or their struggle.

Then, we find authors who randomly have characters swear, not consistently, but off and on, apparently for the shock value. Others might inject a little graphic violence or sex into the spots where they couldn’t think of what to do next.

When you do anything that breaks a rule, you must do it consistently and with purpose. “Shock value” has no value to offer a well-written manuscript, although a well-written manuscript may shock and challenge you.

When you have taken the time to understand how a story is constructed, you begin to find creative ways to phrase things so they keep the story interesting. My suggestion is to learn the rules. When what you write breaks with what is considered accepted practice, do it intentionally. Then, tell your editor what rules you are choosing to ignore and why, and she will make sure you are consistent.

Great authors (and good editors) understand balance.

You want to create a balanced narrative:

  • Information must be delivered only as the protagonist (or reader) needs it. Speaking as an author, it can be difficult to know when to dole out the background, but this is where writing becomes work.
  • The information can never be something everyone already knows, as that is boring.
  • Write with intention, use good grammar, but write using the phrasing and words you think best conveys your story. Refuse to be bullied by people who don’t like work published in your genre and who can’t understand what you are trying to achieve.
  • Write with consistency. If you choose not to use commas to join compound sentences, be consistent, or your narrative will look unedited. If you are consistent, most casual readers won’t notice, although they may think you use too many run-on sentences. However, many more readers are becoming authors, so be wary of breaking that rule.
  • No one will die if you use an adjective or adverb when they are needed. The caveat is don’t use descriptors excessively—creative writers find many ways to show the story, but sometimes only a descriptor will do. At that point, use a “telling” word, rather than going to absurd lengths to show an awkward moment.
  • Show who your people are but allow the reader to form their own idea of beauty. Do give the reader a good general framework to build their visualization around.
  • For the most part, stick to simple basic speech tags like said and replied, and if the conversation has only two people, skip speech tags for an exchange or two. Not for more than two exchanges, however, as lengthy discussions with no speech tags will become confusing.
  • Follow the story arc: it must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. A story consists of
  1. A setting
  2. One or more developed characters
  3. A conflict that forces growth/change
  4. A resolution.

Some authors are like pendulums, swinging wildly from one extreme to the other. They leave each meeting of their writing group confused and hurt, burdened with the notion that they are terrible writers. These people work hard and go all out in applying suggestions made by the group. Unfortunately, they’re making their manuscript more unpalatable with each misguided effort.

Their book is being written by a committee, and we all know how poorly some committees function.

First, we must realize that no one writes a perfect, completely flawless manuscript. Even Neil Gaiman and Alexander Chee begin their new works with imperfect first drafts. No novel emerges fully formed, no matter how brilliant the author.

This means we all begin at the same place as writers, all of us mortals with flaws.

So now that we understand we all begin with flawed work, I must ask you this question: are you writing for the critics who might be out there, or because you have a story you are burning to write?

If you are not writing for the joy of writing, quit now.

Otherwise, keep writing. Only by continued practice and attention to learning the craft will you develop the balance you know you need. Buy the Chicago Guide to Grammar Usage and Punctuation, and learn how sentences and paragraphs are constructed. Then learn how to fit those sentences and paragraphs into a story arc.

When you break a rule, be knowledgeable and do it with style.

You can gain a handle on balance by writing short-stories and essays.

With each short-story you write, you increase your ability to tell a story with minimal exposition and intentional prose. This is especially true if you limit yourself to writing the occasional practice story—telling the whole story in 1000 words or less. These practice shorts serve several purposes:

  • You have a finite amount of time to tell what happened, so only the most crucial of information will fit within that space.
  • You have a limited amount of space so your characters will be restricted to just the important ones.
  • There is no room for anything that does not advance the plot or influence the outcome.
  • You will build a backlog of short stories and characters to draw on when you need a good story to submit to a contest.

Go for the gusto, and try writing flash fiction–give yourself less than 1000 words to tell a story.

You can also challenge yourself to tell a story in around 100 words. That is called a drabble and is an art form in itself.

I write epic and medieval fantasy, but I also write short literary fiction and poetry. I read in all genres and learn from what I read—I learn many things I like and much I do not, simply by reading. I read everything from vampire romances, to science fiction, to classical literature. Think about this: the first superhero adventure, a pair of genre fiction novels written for the entertainment of the masses were two books written by Cervantes, and which are now known as “Don Quixote.”

Today’s novel has a chance of becoming tomorrow’s classic if you are brave and bold enough to write it.

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Hard truths about the industry #amwriting

I love reading,  and always review the books I enjoyed. For every book I feel good about recommending, I may have to read six that are just plain awful. I’m not only talking Indies here—large publishing houses publish many novels every year that are a waste of paper and digital space. These travesties should never have made it past the gateway editor, much less the eye of an experienced agent.

This goes beyond my not caring for the style or voice of the piece. I’m talking lack of proofreading, garbled sentences, lack of knowledge of how to use words like ‘its’ and ‘it’s’, and misspelled words. This happens in traditionally published work as well as Indie, which should be embarrassing to the Big 5, but apparently isn’t.

Some books are so badly edited it seems like the author is the only person who has ever seen the manuscript. One glance at the first pages of the “look inside” option at Amazon and the other large online booksellers can show how abysmal a book is going to be, so use that tool and don’t buy a book that you haven’t had a look at first.

Other novels are moderately edited but not by a professional or someone who understands the craft of writing. This is a flaw that can drive away all but the most determined readers, people who would ignore most typos and slight inconsistencies for a good tale.

My own first novel was published by a small press. It was a good example of bad editing: the unbiased eye of an experienced, educated editor could have made a great novel out of a promising tale. Instead, I paid for work that wasn’t done (having to pay your publisher for editing is a red flag, btw) and the book was published without my seeing the changes my publisher made. That experience was painful, but it was an education I have taken to heart.

Sadly, rushing to publish isn’t limited to Indies. It happens all the time with traditionally published books, especially when the first novel in a series has had good success. These publishers set impossible deadlines and race to launch what they hope will be a follow-up best seller, but because they were rushed, these books sometimes fail to live up to the hype.

I see this as evidence that editing and proofreading by the large houses for many successful traditionally published authors are sometimes overlooked in the rush to cash in on commercial success. And while this means that they publish crap too, Indie authors face a double-standard: the stink of bad editing and proofing washes off the traditional houses, but clings to the Indie industry as a whole.

This brings me to my point: The big 5 traditional publishers pretend everything they publish is sheer magic, while loudly pointing out the faults inherent in self-publishing. And, while it makes me laugh that they decry us as worthless but leap to publish us the minute we show any sign of real success, there are hard truths here we indies who are committed to the craft of writing must face.

Consider your readers—they deserve the best you can give them. For this reason, I refuse to attempt to churn out more than one or two books a year. Some authors can write three decent novels a year, but it takes me four years to take a novel from concept to publication, so I have three manuscripts in various stages at all times. I understand that romance novels are a different kind of animal, but I write for readers with different expectations.

Some general advice for authors who are first starting out:

  1. Learn the mechanics of how to write in your native language. Grammar and punctuation are essential, no matter what genre you are writing.
  2. Join a writing group and meet other authors, either in your local area or on-line. This will help you with steps 3 and 4. Enter writing contests and participate in the boards and threads. Ignore the trolls; they pop-up everywhere (usually with badly written ego-stroking crap to their publishing credit.)
  3. Develop a thick hide, and find an unbiased eye among your trusted acquaintances to read your work as you are writing it so you can make changes more effectively at an early stage. This way you won’t be overwhelmed at the prospect of rewriting an entire manuscript from scratch.
  4. Lose your ego. Your ego gets in the way of your writing.  Are you writing for yourself or for others to read and enjoy your work?
  5. Find a good, professional editor. There are hidden aspects to every great book, and they are all centered around knowledge of the craft. An external eye is essential to the production of a good book. Check their references, and when you do engage their services, do not take their observations personally—editorial comments are intended only to make a manuscript readable. This editor must be someone you can work closely with, who makes suggestions and allows you to make the changes in your masterpiece yourself. They must understand it is your work and you have the right to disagree with any suggested changes. If you have this symbiotic relationship, you will turn out a good final product.
  6. Don’t give up your day job. Even authors receiving hefty advances have to struggle to make ends meet. (Read Thu-Huong Ha’s article, A New Book Shows the Financial Cost of Leading a Creative Life.)

It’s far more affordable now for a dedicated reader to buy enough books to keep themselves happy, but making your way  through the many offerings in our eBookstores is a perilous journey. You can’t always trust the quality by reading the publisher’s label. You just have to realize that whether a novel is traditionally published or Indie, some books are frogs, and some are princes.

To write well, you must read widely, no matter what your favorite genre is. You may have to read a few books you wish you hadn’t on your way to finding the book that sweeps you away. In the process of reading for the purpose of writing book reviews, I have discovered many wonderful books by talented authors in all genres, and on both the indie and traditional sides of the industry. Finding those gems makes wading through the lemons worthwhile.


Sources and Attributions:

A New Book Shows the Financial Cost of Leading a Creative Life,  by Thu-Huong Ha, Jan 11, 2017, Flipboard

IBM Selectric, By Oliver Kurmis (Self-photographed) [CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

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#amwriting: proofreading vs. editing #NotTheSame

The last stage of getting a manuscript ready for publication is critical.  This is where the final person in the process comes in–the proofreader. Perhaps you have volunteered to proofread a friend’s book. The friend arrives with the proof copy (or maybe you have been sent a manuscript). They ask you to look for typos, cut-and-paste-errors, or autocorrect errors. These are things they and their editor may have missed.

Before we go any further, proofreading is not editing.

Editing is a process that I have discussed at length elsewhere and is completed long before we get to the proofreading stage. A good proofreader will understand that the author has already been through the editing gauntlet with that book and is satisfied with it in its current form. A proofreader will not try to hijack the process and derail an author’s launch date by nitpicking his/her genrestyle and phrasing. 

The proofreader must understand that the author has hired a professional line editor and is satisfied that the story arc is what they envisioned and the characters are believable with unique personalities. The editor has worked with the author to ensure the overall tone, voice, and mood of the piece is what the author envisioned.

You will note that I have used the word envisioned twice in my previous paragraph. This is because the work is the author’s creation, a product of his/her vision, and by the time we arrive at the proofing stage, it is intentional in the form it is in.

At this point, the author and his/her editor have considered the age level of the intended audience, so if you feel their work is too dumbed down or poorly conceived and you can’t stomach it, simply hand the manuscript back  and tell them you are unable to do it after all. DON’T go through it with a red pen and mark it up with editorial comments, or critique their voice and content because it will be a waste of time for you and the author.

But what if it is your manuscript that needs proofing? What should you ask from a proofreader?

Even though an editor has combed your manuscript and you have made thousands of corrections, both large and small, there may be places where the reader’s eye will stop. Words have been left out, punctuation is missing–any number of small, hard-to-detect things can occur despite the most thorough of edits.

If the person who has agreed to proof your work cannot refrain from asking for large revisions regarding your style and content, find another proofreader, and don’t ask the first reader for help again.

The problem that frequently rears its head among the Indie community occurs when an author who writes in one genre agrees to proofread the finished product of an author who writes in a different genre. People who write sci-fi or mystery often don’t understand or enjoy paranormal romances, epic fantasy, or YA fantasy.

These are genres with specific styles and reader expectations, and many authors don’t understand this. For this reason, some otherwise wonderful people become terrible, arrogant readers, when they have been asked to proofread in a genre they don’t care for, or for an author whose voice they don’t like. They can’t proofread because they are fundamentally driven to critique and edit.

It is your task to ensure that your intended proofreader is aware of what they are to look for.

In the publishing industry, proofreading is done after the final revisions have been made, and hopefully, it is done by someone who has not seen the manuscript before. That way, they will see it through new eyes, and the small things in your otherwise perfect manuscript will stand out.

What The Proofreader Should Look For:

Spelling—misspelled words, autocorrect errors, and homophones (words that sound the same but are spelled differently). These words are insidious because they are real words and don’t immediately stand out as being out of place.  A human eye is critical for this.

  • Wrong: There cat escaped, and he had to chase it
  • Right: Their cat escaped, and he had to chase it.
  • Wrong: The dog ran though the house.
  • Right: The dog ran through the house.
  • Wrong: He was a lighting mage.
  • Right: He was a lightning mage.

Repeated words and cut-and-paste errors. These are sneaky and dreadfully difficult to spot. Spell-checker won’t always find them. To you the author, they make sense because you see what you intended to see. For the reader, they appear as unusually garbled sentences.

  • Wrong: First of all, First of all, it is accepted practice to italicize thoughts.
  • Wrong: First of all, it is accepted practice to practice thoughts.
  • Wrong: First of all, it is accepted to ot  thoughts.
  • Right: First of all, it is accepted practice to italicize thoughts.

Missing punctuation and closed quotes:

  • Wrong: “Doctor Mendel, you’re new to the area. What do you know about the dead man? asked Officer Shultz.
  • Right: “Doctor Mendel, you’re new to the area. What do you know about the dead man?” asked Officer Shultz.

Numbers that are digits:

Miskeyed numbers are difficult to spot when they are wrong unless they are spelled out.

  • Wrong number: There will be 3000 guests at the reception.
  • Better number (but still written wrong): There will be 300 guests at the reception.
  • Right: There will be three-hundred guests at the reception.

Dropped and missing words:

  • Wrong: Within minutes the place was crawling with cops, and Officer Shultz was sitting at my kitchen table me gently.
  • Right: Within minutes the place was crawling with cops, and Officer Shultz was sitting at my kitchen table grilling me gently.

Make your corrections with care. Each time you create a new passage in your already edited manuscript, you run the risk of creating another undetected error.

At some point, your manuscript is done. The line editor has beaten you senseless with the Chicago Manual of Style. The content and structure are as good as you can get them. At this stage, all you want is one last eye looking for small flaws that may have been missed.

Before you upload that masterpiece to Kindle or wherever, do yourself a favor and have it proofread by several intelligent readers who understand what you are asking them to do and who are willing to do only that.


Credits/Attributions:

The Passion of Creation, Leonid Pasternak [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Writing letter, By Kusakabe_Kimbei [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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#amwritng: The #NanoNovel: the mechanics of writing dialogue

jack-kerouac-quote-memeEveryone has read books that inspire them to become writers. But many authors just starting out don’t know how to write the kind of book they envision.

Consider writing conversations: it’s just people talking, right? No big deal.

Wrong. Many authors just starting out don’t know where the periods (full stops) and commas go, inside or outside the quotation marks. They are inconsistent where they put them throughout the manuscript because they are unsure of what way is right.

They send me things with the punctuation inside the quotation marks sometimes, outside sometimes, and with quote marks missing half the time. I always decline those editing jobs, as it would take a year of my time to get that work into shape. But I do tell them why I couldn’t accept it, and how to correct it so an editor could work with them.

Wrong: “dorothy flew over the rainbow in a house”. Said Toto. I went with her”.

Right: “Dorothy flew over the rainbow in a house,” said Toto. “I went with her.”

1. Always begin what is actually spoken (dialogue) with a capitalized word, no matter where in the sentence it begins.

  • Mary glanced over her shoulder and said, “I’m sorry. I can’t go with you.” 

However, interrupted dialogue, when it resumes, is not capped, although the rules of punctuation and quotation marks still apply.

  • “I’m sorry to tell you,” said Mary, “but I can’t go with you.”

2. Direct dialogue is someone speaking to you or someone else and requires quotation marks.

  • I’m sorry. I can’t go with you,” said Mary.

I’m a US author, so I used double quotes, also called closed quotes. The UK usage is different and often uses apostrophes, or what they call inverted commas.

Regardless of whether you are a UK or US author, be consistent and make sure ALL punctuation goes inside the quote marks.

Yes, I did say All punctuation.

3. How does one set off a quote from someone else within dialogue?

Set it apart with single quotes (apostrophes, inverted commas) and keep it inside the closed quotes. You can do this two ways:

George said, “When I asked her, Mary replied ‘I can’t go.’ But I’m sure she was lying.”

George said, “When I asked, Mary replied ‘I can’t go.'”

Note that in the second sentence 3 apostrophes are placed after the period (full stop): 1 apostrophe and 1 double (closed) quote mark. This is in keeping with the rule that all punctuation in dialogue goes inside the quotation marks.

4. Indirect dialogue is a recapping of dialogue that someone previously spoke.

  • When asked, George said Mary couldn’t go.

Note there are no quotes used in indirect dialogue. Also in the above sentence, the word that is implied between said and Mary.

Dialogue tags, or attributions (said, replied) can come before the dialogue, especially if you want the dialogue tag to be noticed. To make them less noticeable put them in the middle or at the end of sentences. In my own work, I want the dialogue and not the attribution to stand out. However, when more than two people are involved in a conversation, I move the dialogue tags further to the front, so the reader isn’t left wondering who is speaking.

5. You can skip using dialogue tags altogether for a back-and-forth or two, but

  • not if there are more than two speakers in the scene, and
  • not for more than a few exchanges.

Readers want to be able to track who is saying what.

Sometimes it’s okay to miss a few beats. Beats are what screen-writers call the little bits of physical action that is inserted into dialogue. Small actions showing the mood of a character are often best placed where there is a natural break in the dialogue, as they allow the reader to experience the same pause as the characters. They’re an effective tool and are essential to good dialogue, but don’t overdo it. If your characters are fluttering their eyelashes, gazing into the distance or opening their laptops between every second line of conversation, the scene becomes about the action and not the dialogue, and the impact is diluted or lost entirely.

This means that when we add gestures and actions to the conversation we want it to be meaningful,.  Otherwise, just use a simple dialogue tag, like said, or replied.

Please don’t make the mistake of getting rid of attributions entirely because the verbal exchanges become confusing and the action takes over, making the dialogue fade into the background noise of foot shuffling and paper rattling.

I’ve mentioned before that I prefer simple attributions such as said, replied, and answered because they are not as likely to stop the reader’s eye. Some things to consider:

6. People don’t

  • snort,
  • smirk,
  • smile,
  • or frown dialogue as it is physically impossible.

They can say it with a smile, but the smile is a facial expression and does not speak.

Avoid verbal tics like “hmmm…” and “ahhh…” as they just take up space and add fluff to your narrative. When people in real life preface all of their sentences with drawn-out ahs and hmms it can be aggravating to listen to them. Consider how irritating it would be to read it.

writing_conventions_meme_lirf20167. Sometimes we have two ideas in a sentence that we think are one, and we connect them with commas.  But closer examination shows they are not.

  • “Hello, sir, we bathed your dog,” she said.

The above dialogue contains a run-on sentence, despite its shortness. We may actually speak it in this fashion, words run together, but for a reader, punctuation clarifies ideas.

The dialogue contains two separate ideas. “Hello, sir,” is an acknowledgment and a greeting. “We bathed your dog,” indicates an action was taken regarding his dog. It should be:

  • “Hello, sir. We bathed your dog,” she said.
  • “Hello sir,” she said. “We bathed your dog.”

We can take some style and voice liberties with dialogue, and indeed, we should, but adhering to the accepted standard rules of punctuation makes your work readable by anyone who speaks or reads English.


Researched Source:

Section six, Punctuation, pages 306-310: The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition, University of Chicago Press, © 2010

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