Tag Archives: writing craft

#amwriting: compound words and hyphens

Compound words are frequently a source of grief when I receive my manuscript back from my editor. Despite my best efforts, unless I am on my toes in the writing process I habitually hyphenate words that should not be hyphenated.

Most people know that a compound word is a combination of two or more words that function as a single unit of meaning.

Most people also know that there are two types of compounds:

  • those written as single words, with no hyphenation and which are called “closed compounds”– such as the word “bedspread,”
  • “hyphenated compounds,” such as “jack-in-the-box” and “self-worth.”

But there is a third group, and they are the bane of my writing life–those mysterious, ephemeral denizens of the deepest corner of writer’s hell, called open compounds. These seemingly innocent instruments of torture are written as separate words–the nouns “school bus” and “decision making,” for example.

Fortunately, the English language has rules to guide us when deciding if it’s one word, two separate words, or a hyphenated word:  

Do not use a hyphen unless it serves a purpose. If a compound adjective cannot be misread or, as with many psychological terms, its meaning is established, a hyphen is not necessary.

The American Psychological Association  style guide gives of these examples:

covert learning techniques, health care reform, day treatment program, sex role differences, grade point average

Use a hyphen in a temporary compound that is used as an adjective before a noun

Use a hyphen if the term can be misread or if the term expresses a single thought.

  • “the children resided in two parent homes” means that two homes served as residences, whereas if the children resided in “two-parent homes,” they each would live in a household headed by two parents.  In that case, a properly placed hyphen helps the reader understand the intended meaning.

We also use hyphens for compound words that fall into these categories:

  • if the base word is capitalized: pro-African
  • when writing numbers: post-1910, twenty-two
  • an abbreviation: pre-ABNA manuscript
  • more than one word: non-achievement-oriented students
  • All “self-” compounds whether they are adjectives or nouns such as self-respect, self-esteem, self-paced.

We hyphenate words that could be misunderstood when there are diverse meanings if they’re unhyphenated:

  • re-pair (to pair again) as opposed to repair (to mend)
  • re-form (to form again) as opposed to reform (to improve)

We hyphenate words in which the prefix ends, and the base word begins with the same vowel:

  • metaanalysis
  • antiintellectual

The problem is unless you are a technical writer, how often are we going to use those terms? Hence, the confusion when we DO use them.

Get It Write online says, “One way to decide if a hyphen is necessary is to see if the phrase might be ambiguous without it. For example, “large-print paper” might be unclear written as “large print paper” because the reader might combine “print” and “paper” as a single idea rather than combining “large” and “print.” Another such example is “English-language learners.” Without the hyphen, a reader might think we are talking about English people who are learning any language rather than people who are learners of the English language.”

A good rule to remember is most words formed with prefixes and suffixes are written as one word with NO hyphen.

Prefixes: Afterglow, extracurricular, multiphase, socioeconomic

Sufixes: Arachnophobia, wavelike, angiogram

When I am laying down prose in the first draft, my natural inclination when writing these words would be to hyphenate them, but that is wrong, and my editor always kindly reminds me of this.

When in doubt, it is wisest to look the word up in an online dictionary to see the various different ways it can be combined. Just go to:

http://www.merriam-webster.com

What it all comes down to is this—when editing for another author I am able to see these things clearly. In my own work–it’s like my finger has a twitch that absolutely MUST add a hyphen to compound words that should remain separate, and separates words that should be joined.

This is why the editor has an editor for her own work.


Credits and Attributions:

When do you need to use a hyphen for compound words? The American Psychological Association, http://www.apastyle.org/learn/faqs/when-use-hyphen.aspx accessd June 25, 2017

Compound Words: When to Hyphenate, Get It Write, Nancy Tuten and Gayle Swanson  http://www.getitwriteonline.com/archive/042703compwdshyph.htm, 2017

Parts of this post were originally posted March 4, 2014, as Hyphen Help Us, by Connie J. Jasperson, © 2014-2017.

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#amwriting: creating a strong novella

A little over three years ago, I discovered that one of my works in progress was not really a novel after all.

The first draft was at 85,000 words, but it occurred to me that it was a novella. In the first half of the book, 4 chapters didn’t advance the protagonist’s story. When I finished weeding it out, the manuscript length was slightly over 50,000 words.  In YA and some romance 50,000 words is a novel-length book, but in fantasy, it is only half a book.

So, I  shelved that manuscript, as I had other, more pressing, work to get finished and had nothing of value to add to the tale. I said at the time that I would much rather be known for having written a strong novella than a weak novel.

Those four cut chapters totaled about 16,000 words. Added to that were the words I weeded out in the second draft. They totaled 8,000 to 10,000 more words.

But why did I do this?

  1. Besides the four chapters that didn’t belong there anymore, 3 more chapters were mostly background that didn’t need to be in the finished product. When I removed large chunks of exposition, I was able to condense those 3 chapters into 1 that actually moved the story forward.
  2. Also, in the rough draft we always find words we can cut or find alternatives for, words and phrases that weaken our narrative such as:
  • There was
  • To be

Also, we look for places where we can make contractions: ‘was not’ becomes ‘wasn’t,’ ‘has not’ becomes ‘hasn’t,’ etc.

Many times we can simply cut some words out, and find the prose is better without them. Most times, those words need no replacement.

I have mentioned the overuse of what I think of as “crutch” words. You can lower your word count when you look at each instance of these words. These words  fall out of our heads along with the good stuff as we are sailing along:

  • so,
  • very,
  • that,
  • just,
  • so,
  • literally
  • very

But back to the novella: why did I cut an 85,000 word MS down to 50,000 or so words?

A lot of what I had written was good work, but as I said, several long passages didn’t advance my protagonist’s tale. They pertained to a different character’s story set in that world–so they were a rabbit-trail to nowhere in the context of that story.

I didn’t discard those chapters, though. Those passages will come in handy later if I choose to write that character’s story, so I saved them in a separate file, under the character’s name.

The fact is, you must be willing to be ruthless. Yes, you may well have spent three days or even weeks writing that chapter. But sometimes, when you see it in the context of the overall story arc, you realize it bogs things down, and there is no fixing it.

Just because we wrote it does not mean we must keep it in that story.

At some point I will finish that novella, but the lesson I learned was this: no matter how much you like your prose, there are times when it must go.

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#amwriting: Using repetition and parallelism

Some aspects of writing craft were never taught in school. I know! I was shocked to discover this too. Many people learn these things through getting their MFA, but the rest of us must educate ourselves.

One concept I discovered through reading is how my favorite authors will use the intentional repetition of certain key words and phrases to highlight an idea or show a scene. This technique is an accepted rhetorical device and is commonly found in mainstream fiction. It is used to evoke an emotional response in the reader and can be exceedingly effective when done right.

Literarydevices.net says, “The beauty of using figurative language is that the pattern it arranges the words into is nothing like our ordinary speech. It is not only stylistically appealing, but it also helps convey the message in much more engaging and notable way. The aura that is created by the usage of repetition cannot be achieved through any other device.”  (End quoted text)

Also, according to literarydevices.net, repetition as a literary device can take these forms:

  • Repetition of the last word in a line or clause.
  • Repetition of words at the start of clauses or verses.
  • Repetition of words or phrases in opposite sense.
  • Repetition of words broken by some other words.
  • Repetition of same words at the end and start of a sentence.
  • Repetition of a phrase or question to stress a point.
  • Repetition of the same word at the end of each clause.
  • Repetition of an idea, first in negative terms and then in positive terms.
  • Repetition of words of the same root with different endings.
  • Repetition both at the end and at the beginning of a sentence, paragraph, or scene.
  • A construction in poetry where the last word of one clause becomes the first word of the next clause. (End quoted text)

One thing that has been a pain in the pen for me is the way my narrative will feel awkward to me, and I can’t figure out why. When I take a closer look, I realize the awkwardness is caused by poor sentence construction.

When you present two or more ideas in a sentence or paragraph, they must be equal in importance, or parallel. When using repetition for literary effect, parallelism is crucial.

What parallelism means can be shown by a quote attributed to Julius Caesar who used the phrase in a letter to the Roman Senate after he had achieved a quick victory in the Battle of Zela.

I came;

I saw;

I conquered.

Caesar gives equal importance to the different ideas of coming, seeing, and conquering. In literary terms this is elegant on two levels:

  1. It employs repetition of the word ‘I’ to good effect
  2. Three ideas are presented in one sentence: He arrived in Zela, saw something he liked, and took it.

Washington.edu offer us this example. Consider the sentence: They fought in the streets, in the fields, and in the woods.

If you leave out the second instance of the word ‘in’ the sentence is no longer parallel. They fought in the streets, the fields, and in the woods.

In a series of phrases beginning with a word such as to or in, repeat the word before each phrase or don’t repeat it at all after the first one:

They fought in the streets, the fields, and the woods. However, in literary prose, there is magic in the number three: the emotional impact of three repetitions of such a small word as ‘in’ elevates the prose from merely reporting a fact to something poetic.

‘In’ is a correlative word, a word or concept that has a mutual relationship with another word or concept. It is rarely a standalone word, so when used in repetition the words it modifies must be given equal importance.

Intentional repetition of key words can create impact:

Pulling loose from his grip, Ellen wept. “I hate you, I hate your mother, and I hate our life!”

What we want to remember is that when we intentionally repeat a word or a phrase, each repetition must be given equal importance, or the phrase will become awkward in a subtle way.


Sources and Attributions:

Repetition Copyright © 2017 Literary Devices. All Rights Reserved

Quote from the PDF Parallelism: They fought in the streets, the fields, and in the woods.  http://faculty.washington.edu/davidgs/ParallelConstruc.pdf

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#amwriting: Power Punctuation

A little power is a dangerous thing, and certain punctuation has power.

Exclamation points!

Em dashes—

Ellipses…

These are all wonderful, fun things to play with, but making too free with the power punctuation makes the narrative too breathless, or in the case of ellipses, too slow. When prose is well written, it conveys the excitement of the moment without force. A good author doesn’t resort to creating excitement with the overuse of exclamation points as this makes the narrative breathless. It tells the reader what to think, rather than showing them a scene that is exciting.

When I am laying down the first draft, I am just as guilty of filling the manuscript with exclamations, em dashes, and ellipses.  I am in a rush to get the ideas down on paper, so in some places, this is a subconscious shorthand for the second draft, which is where I take those telling scenes and show them.

I do a global search for exclamation points, ellipses, and em dashes. At each one, I examine the scene. Nine times out of ten, I change the power punctuation to a period, or I find the em dash or ellipsis was not needed.

Exclamation points, em dashes, and ellipses are like speech tags. They are necessary, but simplicity is the key to making them unobtrusive. Generally, dialogue worded powerfully, along with the way you visualize and then show the attitude of the characters and their situation will serve to convey the emotions.

When it’s done right, you will only need one or two morsels of power punctuation, and the punctuation you use won’t be a needle in the eye of the reader. The common, garden-variety period or comma will usually serve the situation well, and won’t throw the reader out of the book.

All punctuation has its place and should be used appropriately. Exclamation points, em dashes, and ellipses should be used, but only at important points. For the most part, the way you have set the scene combined with the dialogue itself will convey the tension without your having to sprinkle the narrative with power punctuation.

I suggest you do a global search and change most of them to a period.

But what about !?  I only recently learned that these are called “interrobangs.” Comic books frequently employ interrobangs, generally because the authors are limited on space for narrative and use creative punctuation as a shorthand. They do this as a way of telling the story.

It’s your narrative, so of course, you will do as you see fit. However, the exclamation point before a question mark is not accepted punctuation in literature intended for adults, so don’t be surprised if you receive negative feedback in reviews. Interrobangs are a writing habit professional writers will avoid if they want to be taken seriously.

Peppering the narrative with exclamation points and interrobangs is a form of telling the reader “this is exciting”as opposed to showing the excitement. We want to immerse the reader, not blow them out of the manuscript. A great resource for ideas on how to convey strong emotions without telling the reader what the character is feeling is The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.

All sentences should have only one punctuation mark to signify the end. “Ahah!” you say. “What about the ellipsis?” When the ellipsis falls at the end of the sentence, it should be three dots followed by the required punctuation.

  • If the ellipsis falls at the end of a sentence in dialogue, use a comma at the end of it followed by a speech tag. “But, my dog…,” Annie said, her brow furrowed.
  • If no speech tag is used, employ a period, question mark, etc. “But, my dog….” Annie’s brow furrowed.

This is because the ellipsis or em dash at the end of a sentence symbolize unspoken words, trailing off. They are not considered punctuation.

This is what the Chicago Manual of Style says:

Use an ellipsis for any omitted word, phrase, line, or paragraph from within a quoted passage. There are two commonly used methods of using ellipsis: one uses three dots for any omission, while the second makes a distinction between omissions within a sentence (using three dots: . . .) and omissions between sentences (using a period and a space followed by three dots: . …). An ellipsis at the end of a sentence with no sentence following should be followed by a period (for a total of four dots).

Once again, I emphasize that we use the Chicago Manual of Style if we are writing fiction and intend to publish it. The Chicago Manual of Style is written specifically for writers, editors, and publishers and is the publishing industry standard. All the editors at the major publishing houses own and refer to this book when they have questions.

What is the best style guide for writing technical user manuals?

Are you writing for a newspaper? AP style was developed for expediency in the newspaper industry and is not suitable for novels or for business correspondence, no matter how strenuously journalism majors try to push it forward. If you are using AP style, you are writing for the newspaper, not for literature. These are two widely different mediums with radically different requirements.

For business correspondence, you want to use the Gregg Reference Manual.

If you develop a passion for words and ways in which we bend them, as I have done, you could soon find your bookshelf bowing under the weight of your reference books. Writing is not a one-size-fits-all kind of occupation. There is no one style guide that will fit every purpose. Each essay and book may be meant for a different reader, and each should be written with the style that meets the expectations of the intended readers.

However, some things are universal:

Exclamation points must be used sparingly.

Ellipses symbolize omitted words and are not punctuation, so when the conversation trails off, you must add an ending punctuation. My God, I thought. What…?

Em dashes can either set off phrases—like this—or if used at the end of a sentence an em dash can indicate cut off words.

Consider the following quote from A Dog’s Tale by Mark Twain. In this case, you do not add punctuation:

It did seem to me that life was just too lovely to—

It is your task to write the narrative so that it shows the character’s emotions. Their eyes will widen, or their mouth will drop open, or they will stop and stare. When it comes to punctuation, do you tell, or do you show? You make the decision, but I see the interrobang and the overuse of the exclamation point as if they were too much seasoning, strong flavors that can ruin the the taste of the narrative.


Sources and Attributions:

The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.), page 639 sections 13.51 – 13.55 The Chicago Manual of Style 16th edition text © 2010 by The University of Chicago.

The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.), page 334 Section 6.84 Em dashes to Indicate Sudden Breaks, The Chicago Manual of Style 16th edition text © 2010 by The University of Chicago.

A Dog’s Tale,  by Mark Twain. © 1904 Harper & Brothers, via Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=A_Dog%27s_Tale&oldid=769178379 (accessed May 16, 2017).

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#amwriting: Drawing on Life Experience

Writers, even dedicated, passionate ones, have lives outside the confines of their craft, and while it frequently derails our ability to write, it is also where we find the realism we need to inject into our work. Life must come before writing because writing doesn’t pay the bills unless you are one of the fortunate few.

I have several family members with serious health issues. Sometimes, I must step away from the keyboard and be the wife, niece, mother, or grandmother they need and you know what? My writing is better for it.

I nursed my mother, with whom I had a complicated relationship, through the last year of her life. She had smoked until the age of 42, and was addicted to perfumes and air-fresheners. She was a self-described clothes-horse who loved expensive cologne and used it liberally.

Even after her death, after they had been laundered and dry cleaned, her clothes still smelled strongly of her brand of Estee Lauder’s cologne.  In her home, she had a Glade plug-in in every outlet, and the spray bottle of Febreze in her hand at all times.

She died of lung cancer.

During her last year, we spent four days a week at the cancer center, and the rest of our time with me caring for my frail mother as if she were my baby. It was difficult mostly because watching someone you love slowly die is the worst. My sanity during that difficult year was made possible because of writing. I wrote 260,000 words during that year, some of it good, some of it off the rails. Much of the experiences of that year are unconsciously referenced in my current writing. It is the part of me that goes into each tale.

It was a devastating year made more difficult by my brother’s mental illness and drug addiction. Yet, that same year was made richer by the strange friendship that developed between me and my mother. All the many things that had stood between us and which had seemed so important were set aside and never addressed. This was because, in the face of her final battle, the hurts of the past just did not seem that important to me. We began to enjoy being in each others’ company, enjoy the quiet of an afternoon, or the bustle of a Starbucks. The ‘F’ word that some of us find so hard to say, forgiveness, became such an easy thing, and when she died, I had lost a friend as well as a mother.

On this blog, I’ve discussed the way epilepsy has affected my two of my adult children, and how our lives are affected by witnessing their struggle. Many hours have been spent writing in hospitals, and this last weekend was no different. I am there when they need me, and when they are ready to stand on their own, I allow them the space they need to do just that.

I have also mentioned how having an eccentric father with battle related PTSD forged my need to escape into books and inspired my writing. Some of us have survived the alcoholic parents who did their best, but dealt with an addiction they denied having. Every writer deals with family issues and experiences, both good and bad, and we are a composite of all of them.

Every time our heart is broken, every time we feel that glorious rush of infatuation, and every time we stick our foot in our mouth or must eat humble pie—these moments should find their way into our work and emerge as characters with real emotions, people who live and breathe and feel real to the reader.

Life in all its glorious beauty and ugliness fuels my writing, and I am not alone. We authors take what we know and reformulate it into something we can live with. In some ways, hope drives my writing. The fact I have hope allows me to write about things that are painful. I find that the fullness of life and the occasional emptiness of despair are easier written about when I set them in an alternate universe, and wrap it in a story that embraces the emotions, even though the story doesn’t parallel my life directly.

I’m like the character in a long, brilliant and sometimes bad, novel. My life is a mix of great joy, romance, helpless sorrow, extreme anger, and faith in the future. I hope your life is balanced as well as mine is, with the good outweighing the bad. This maelstrom of life experience is the well we draw from when we are creating our characters.

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#amwriting: creating intimacy: Point of View

Narration is the use of a written or spoken commentary to convey a story to an audience. Wikipedia explains that a narrative consists of three components:

  • Narrative point of view: the perspective (or type of personal or non-personal “lens”) through which a story is communicated.

  • Narrative voice: the format (or type presentational form) through which a story is communicated.

  • Narrative time: the grammatical placement of the story’s time-frame in the past, the present, or the future.

We want to create a sense of intimacy, of being in the character’s head. One way to do that is to use stream of consciousness, a narrative mode that offers a first-person perspective by attempting to replicate the thought processes as well as the actions and spoken words of the narrative character.

This device incorporates interior monologues and inner desires or motivations, as well as pieces of incomplete thoughts that are expressed to the audience but not necessarily to other characters. Consider this passage from James Joyce’s Ulysses:

“A dwarf’s face, mauve and wrinkled like little Rudy’s was. Dwarf’s body, weak as putty, in a whitelined deal box. Burial friendly society pays. Penny a week for a sod of turf. Our. Little. Beggar. Baby. Meant nothing. Mistake of nature. If it’s healthy it’s from the mother. If not from the man. Better luck next time.

—Poor little thing, Mr Dedalus said. It’s well out of it.

The carriage climbed more slowly the hill of Rutland square. Rattle his bones. Over the stones. Only a pauper. Nobody owns.”

In this narrative mode, we see the POV character’s rambling thoughts, as well as witness their conversations and actions. This is a tricky device to do well, and the only time I have employed it was in a writing class.

When they want to tell a story though the protagonist’s eyes, many authors employ the first-person point of view to convey intimacy. With the first-person point of view, a story is revealed through the thoughts and actions of the protagonist within his or her own story.  The waves carried me, and I fell upon the shore, a drowning man, clutching at the stones with a desperation I had never before known.

I have used first-person, and find it easy to write. I prefer to read a third-person narrative so that is what I write in most often.

If you prefer, as I do, to write in an omniscient voice, the story is told from an outside, overarching point of view. The narrator sees and knows everything that happens within the world of the story, including what each of the characters is thinking and feeling. A way to convey intimacy when writing in third person omniscient is to use the third-person subjective.

Again, Wikipedia says, “The third-person subjective is when the narrator conveys the thoughts, feelings, opinions, etc. of one or more characters. If there is just one character, it can be termed third-person limited, in which the reader is “limited” to the thoughts of some particular character (often the protagonist) as in the first-person mode, except still giving personal descriptions using “he”, “she”, “it”, and “they”, but not “I”. This is almost always the main character (e.g., Gabriel in Joyce’s The Dead, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown, or Santiago in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea). Certain third-person omniscient modes are also classifiable as “third person, subjective” modes that switch between the thoughts, feelings, etc. of all the characters.”

This mode is also referred to as close 3rd person. I like this mode and frequently use it. At its narrowest and most subjective, the story reads as though the viewpoint character were narrating it. This is comparable to the first person, in that it allows an in-depth revelation of the protagonist’s personality, but differs as it always uses third-person grammar. Because it is always told in the third person, this is an omniscient mode. I like reading works written in this mode as it is easy for me as reader to form a deep attachment to the protagonist.

Some writers will shift perspective from one viewpoint character to another, such as George R. R. Martin does. I admit I don’t care for that but occasionally find myself falling into it. I then have to stop and make hard scene breaks, because it’s easy to fall into head-hopping, which is a serious no-no.

Head-hopping occurs when an author switches point-of-view characters within a single scene and happens most frequently when using a Third-Person Omniscient narrative because the thoughts of every character are open to the reader.

Experiment with POV. Write a scene from one of your works in progress using a different narrative mode. You might be surprised what insights you will gain in regard to your own work.


Sources and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “Narration,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Narration&oldid=777375141 (accessed May 7, 2017).

Quote from Ulysses, by James Joyce, published 1922 by Sylvia Beach

Wikipedia contributors, “Ulysses (novel),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Ulysses_(novel)&oldid=777540958 (accessed May 7, 2017).

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#amwriting: demystifying the semicolon

Semicolons are misunderstood and misused bits of punctuation. Some people believe they are extra-long pauses, halfway between a comma and a (full stop) period. With that in mind, they litter their work with instances of typographical madness.

Semicolons are NOT extra-firm pauses. When writing genre fantasy, em dashes (or hyphens if you are British) serve that function. Semicolons have a different place in the universe. So now we’re going to examine the semicolon and discover what it is that they actually do.

The proper use of a semicolon is to join two short sentences that are directly related to each other, turning them into a compound sentence.

No one enjoys reading a choppy narrative because too many short sentences can be distracting and hard to get into. The way we smooth the narrative is to join short sentences into longer, compound sentences. But frequently, that creates run-on sentences. (I am the queen of those.)

SEMICOLON: Use a semicolon in place of a period to separate two complete, stand alone sentences where the conjunction has been left out. These sentences MUST be directly related to each other.

Incorrect: Call me tomorrow; if it rains. (The semicolon is not needed because “if it rains” is not a stand alone sentence. This sentence should be written: Call me tomorrow, if it rains.)

Incorrect: Call me tomorrow; the car is running in the driveway. (Each clause can stand alone but they have no relation at all to each other. They are separate thoughts completely.)

Correct: Call me tomorrow; we’ll make the arrangements then. (The conjunction and has been replaced by the semicolon.)

The key to understanding semicolons is to understand what a stand alone sentence is. A stand alone sentence consists of a subject and a verb, and expresses a complete thought:

Vera walked carefully across the rough ground.

Dogs and their owners came from all over to play in that park.

If you have sentences that express complete thoughts but make the narrative choppy, you can connect them with a conjunction: Rain had fallen. The yard was flooded. We were trapped.

Rain had fallen, and the yard was flooded, so we were trapped.

Alternatively, we could rewrite the sentences in such a way they aren’t choppy:

Rain had fallen, flooding the yard. We were trapped.

If you don’t want to use a conjunction and you absolutely must use a semicolon, or you will burst into flames, you have the legal right to do so.

Rain had fallen, flooding the yard; we were trapped.

Authors who truly believe in themselves and their work will go out of their way to learn the proper use of punctuation. Once we know the mechanics of the English language, we will use it in ways that define our vision for our work.

When we learn how punctuation functions in making our sentences flow for the reader, we begin to develop our sense of style. We begin to craft our work with intention.

As a result, our work ceases to be uneven, with occasional flashes of brilliance. It becomes engrossing, something our readers can get lost in.

However, there are some considerations for each author to ponder when it comes to the use of the infamous semicolon. For general fiction or literary fiction, semicolons are no big deal. Used properly, readers and reviewers won’t even notice them.

If you are writing in genres such as paranormal fantasy or hard science fiction, I suggest you use conjunctions or rewrite the sentences in such a way they aren’t choppy, rather than resorting to using semicolons. Some reviewers in those genres seem to despise semicolons, saying they are “archaic.” These reviewers will criticize work sprinkled with semicolons as being “too literary” (whatever that means).

Maybe they are archaic, but I doubt it. When I first began writing, I used to employ semicolons far too frequently and improperly. I had the good fortune of having an editor who was patient and happy to explain how they actually function. I bought a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style and that book is what I refer back to when I have questions about how punctuation works.

While I rarely use them myself nowadays, the semicolon is a legitimate punctuation mark, and when used correctly, it has a specific task. I suspect the many haters of this little morsel of madness are simply confused by the proper use of it, and therefore they consider it unnecessary.

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#amwriting: the first draft

Children are often full of fibs and fabulous tales. They crack me up with how obvious they are about it. But little white lies happen in adult life, too.  They are usually a gut-reaction, a sometimes irrational reflex that we justify with the comforting thought that “it doesn’t really matter, and this way we’ll avoid an argument.”

We’ve all done it at one time or another, and in much the same way as our toilet habits are, it’s not a subject we like to discuss in polite company.

But it makes an interesting plot development. In real life, white lies can escalate into big, complicated messes that can end marriages.  Love and white-lies are like the two sides of the family I grew up in – they don’t really mix well. In a good marriage, there are no white lies.  White lies happen when you don’t trust the other person to accept what you have either done or plan to do.

Trust is the key word here.

In the Tower of Bones series, I have one character whose life is one long string of white lies, and that made for the most pivotal plot development in the story. It was difficult to write his tale, and yet his penchant for avoiding the truth was the snowflake that caused the landslide, and it drove the plot. The repercussions of his white-lies in book two form the tension for the next books in that series.

In my opinion, the best stories take elements of life and that are sometime uncomfortable and give them that little twist, sending the protagonist down a path where the reader would never dare to go. We just have to do it in such a way that it feels organic and not forced.

In my current work, I am writing the first draft, trying to find out who these characters are. What are their personal strengths? What are their weaknesses? I will have to exploit their weaknesses to the max, but ultimately their strengths must win out.

Trust and the bonds of brotherhood are the core of this new series. Each book will feature a different protagonist, and the final book brings them all together in the finale.

When I first conceived my new series, the Aeoven Cycle, I had a vague idea of who these characters were. The main protagonist is a legendary hero, appearing in the time of Tower of Bones in children’s books as a superhero type of character. He is the Superman character, a mythical hero who always saved the day.

In Edwin’s time, history remembers Aelfrid as a hero, a mighty mage gifted with the ability to make his sword appear as if it were made of fire. His legacy was the Temple of Aeos and the College of Warcraft and Magic. He was that man, but who was he really?

As I get deeper into this first draft, I am discovering my protagonist, and finding out what his flaws and blind spots are. His real life had little to do with the amazing legends that grew up featuring him as a great hero, but he was heroic in the ways that matter. He is loyal, which is his great weakness, and which ultimately will force him down a path he doesn’t want to travel.

At this point my first draft sits on my desk, filled with repetitiousness and flat prose.  No matter how I grasp for words, a sword remains a sword, remains a sword… since to refer to it as a blade or weapon would require stretching my vocabulary and I’m struggling enough with trying to figure out the how and why of things.

It is, I keep reminding myself, only the first draft. Once I have the entire story down it will be come a four book cycle, with all the threads of the first three books coming together in the final book.

The important thing here is to get Alf’s story onto the paper. Once I have done that, I can tweak the prose and cut the fluff. It will take three drafts, and possibly two years, but I will eventually make this into something I would like to read, and hopefully, a story others will enjoy too.

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#amwriting: How to Handle Rejection

I have received my share of rejections. It hurts every time, but now that I am further down the road as a professional, I have enough scar tissue that I don’t feel the agony the way I used to.

Sometimes we receive a standard rejection that boils down to “Sorry, but no.” It’s not personal so I don’t brood over it. In my experience, those kinds of rejections are bad only because they don’t tell us why the piece wasn’t acceptable. I can only assume that the piece I sent in was not what the editor was looking for that day, or perhaps ever.

Not everything you write will resonate with everyone you submit it to.  Put two people in a room, hand them the most thrilling thing you’ve ever read, and you’ll get two different opinions and they probably won’t agree with you.

Some of us handle rejection with grace and dignity, and others go ballistic and make an uncomfortable situation worse.

The best kind of rejections, in my opinion, are when we receive a little encouragement: “Try us again.” That means exactly what it says, so the next time you have something you think will fit in that anthology or magazine, send them a submission.

I know it doesn’t make sense, but the more an editor writes in a letter about why they have rejected a piece, the more likely the author will be hurt and angry. This is because it’s a rejection and may contain detailed criticism. It’s like a bad review and feels unfair.

I once got a rejection from an anthology along with a curt note that said only that the subject had been done before.

I was a bit put off by the abruptness of the note, but I realized it was just this particular editor’s way. He’s a busy man with no time to waste on fools. Yet, he took the time to send me a note instead of a form letter.

The fact he sent me a note encourages me to believe he might be more receptive to a different story, so if I have one I think he’ll like, I’ll send it to him.

I could have embarrassed myself and responded childishly, but that would have been foolish and self-defeating. The truth was that it had been done before. I still love that story, but an editor’s bluntness is valuable, so I will someday rework that tale with a different twist.

We must have a care about the way we behave. We are judged by the manner in which we act and react in every professional interaction. If you respond to a peer’s criticism without thinking it through, you risk doing irreparable damage to your career—you will be put on that editor’s “no way in hell” list.

You need to be strong, stay calm, and understand that the editor has gone to some trouble for you. DO NOT respond to the letter with a flame-mail, and DO NOT go off hurt, bad-mouthing that editor to your homies on your favorite writers’ forums. They saw something good in your work, and you need to try this editor again.

But what if you have submitted to an anthology and, while they sent you no contract, they did send a letter of interest and a request for revisions?

That is huge. You have your foot in the door, so put on your grownup pants and make whatever changes they request. Your piece still may not make it, but give it your best shot. If the editor wants changes, they will make clear what they want you to do.

This happens most often for submissions to an anthology. You must trust that the editor knows what the intended readers expect to see, and you want those readers to like your work.

Never be less than gracious to the editor when you communicate with them. Make those revisions. Do what that editor has asked and make no complaint. Be a professional and work with them.

Negative feedback is a necessary part of growth. When an author becomes too important in their own mind to tolerate the merest whiff of criticism, they can create a situation that is intolerable for all those around them. Treat all your professional contacts with courtesy, no matter how angry you are. Allow yourself some time to cool off. Don’t have a tantrum and immediately respond with an angst-riddled rant.

I keep a file of my rejection letters/emails. Many are simple “We are not interested in this piece at this time.” Some have short notes attached “Try us again in the future.” Some contain the details of why a piece was rejected, and while those are painful, they are the ones I learn from.

Never burn your bridges, even if the magazine or anthology you were rejected from is a minor player in the publishing world. You can’t say “Well, that editor’s a nobody.” That has nothing to do with it because every famous editor/author begins as a nobody, and they all receive work that must be rejected. Your submission didn’t fit their needs, and you must move on, or if they requested changes, you should do your best to make them.

This is where you have the chance to cross the invisible line between amateur and professional. Always take the high ground—if an editor has sent you a detailed rejection, respond with a simple “thank you for your time.” If it’s a form letter rejection, don’t reply.

But either way, do keep trying to crack that nut. Keep submitting work you think they will like and eventually you might succeed.

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#amwriting: getting lost in translation

The question about using foreign languages in dialogue recently arose again, so it seemed appropriate to revisit a situation from one of last year’s posts.

The quote that started it all was posted in a writers forum: “I have a main character in a fantasy novel who speaks no English. She speaks several other languages, though. Should I put the translations for her dialogue in italics or in parentheses?”

The answer to both options is a resounding no. We write in our native language for people who read in that language.

We can add a slightly foreign flair, but translations should not be necessary at all. We don’t put the reader through that kind of torture, wading through a language they don’t understand, and then giving them the translation in italics. (Or large chunks of whatever in parentheses.)

The writer whose question had begun this was writing a fantasy novel, and there are certain conventions readers expect authors to adhere to in this genre. When writing genre fantasy it’s a generally accepted practice that thoughts are set off with italics, not parentheses (aka Virginia Woolf), and so brackets have no place in the fantasy narrative.

Too many brackets clutter up the narrative just as much as large blocks of italics. In fantasy, the em dash or ellipsis has the function of setting portions of the narrative aside or giving it emphasis.

Italics, parentheses, and foreign dialogue are like cayenne—a little goes a long way. It’s all right to include an occasional foreign word or phrase, as long as it is done in such a way that the reader who most likely does not speak that language is not completely thrown out of the book.

My next thought when I was told about this particular conversation was, does the writer speak the languages she is writing, or is she getting her Russian (or Spanish or German) from Google Translate?

If that is the case, this author has a hot mess on her hands and her readers aren’t likely to finish her book.

Original sentence in English: “It appears as if my dog may have fleas.”

Google translation in French: “Il semble que si mon chien peut avoir des puces.”

Re-run that French phrase through Google translator: “It seems as if my dog can have fleas.”

Note the slight change in the translation—one word has been shifted, “may” becomes “can.” While these words are sometimes interchangeable in English, they don’t always mean the same thing:

  • May sometimes means might or perhaps; or sometimes may gives permission.
  • Can gives permission or enables.

That slight switching out of the word “can” for “may” changes the meaning of the sentence. The first sentence with “may” suggests it is possible the dog has fleas. The second translation to French assumes the word “may” is permission and gives the dog permission to have fleas.

These are two entirely different concepts.

English originally developed from a set of Anglo-Frisian or North Sea Germanic dialects originally spoken by Germanic tribes traditionally known as the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes.  So, modern English is an offshoot of Frisian, as is Dutch. Basically, we speakers of English speak a version of Dutch.

I hear you now: “But I don’t understand Dutch!”

This is because even though we share the same roots, we have widely different syntax.  English is heavily influenced by Latin, thanks to the Roman Conquest of Britain. In linguistics, syntax is the set of rules, principles, and processes that govern the structure of sentences in a given language, specifically word order.

How do you know that the Google translator understands syntax? The answer is: it doesn’t.

Imagine this situation: Your character from Amsterdam has bent a spoke on his bicycle wheel. He speaks Dutch. Filtered through the translator, it goes like this:

English: “Oh no. My bicycle has a bent spoke. How can I fix it?”

1st Dutch translation: “Oh nee. Mijn fiets heeft een gebogen sprak. Hoe kan ik dat op?”

2nd English translation: “Oh no. My bike needs an bent. How can I fix it?”

Note the misplaced words: When we retranslate it back to  English, the second translation makes no sense.

Google Translate is an extremely useful tool, but it is not intended to be used to translate an entire book into a foreign language. You need to hire a translator for that.

So, now we know that texts translated via Google Translate often emerge slightly twisted and make no sense, which is not what we want. If you do use the occasional foreign word or phrase, it’s no big deal as long as it is used appropriately and in a context that will be understandable to readers who don’t speak that language. It lends a certain realism when done with a deft and sparing hand.

Just don’t rely on Google Translate to help you write your Russian spy novel’s love scene.

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