A common complaint I see in social media and reviews of indie books is that the grammatical slips that often litter these works distract from good stories. So yes, there are plenty of “rules,” guidelines, and conventions that writers really must adhere to if they want to be taken seriously by agents and editors, as well as many readers. Since many of these grammatical issues matter to clear writing, it’s not surprising that they get in the way of what the writer wants to say.
But there are some instructions that are regularly handed down as rules that don’t interfere with clear writing and that, in some cases, were never really “rules” anyway, not in the sense of something a writer should work hard to observe. In fact, struggling to follow some of them at all costs can turn perfectly straightforward sentences into gobbledygook.
Here are three you can let go of with no harm done.
Ending sentences with prepositions. Yes, you can!
My father used to tell me it was Winston Churchill who said, “That is something up with which I will not put.” Since then, I’ve seen that line inserted into the mouths of many different luminaries; regardless of who said it, the point is the same. Shoehorning the prepositions “up” and “with” into the middle of a sentence can throw the whole construction out of kilter.
This probably apocryphal example is interesting because “Put up with” is actually one of the English verbs in which the prepositions are actually part of the whole deal, so that some of the absurdity of “up with which” is that it separates essential parts of the verb phrase “put up with” from each other.
But even ordinary prepositions banished from the natural end point wreak havoc on the sentences they are meant to clean up. “What is that book about?” has to become “About what is that book?” And heaven forbid you try to restructure “Who did you go with?” The result, “With whom did you go?” now forces you to confront the difference between “who” and “whom” (which is actually a real distinction but another one you can ignore).
Splitting infinitives. Yes, you can!
Way back in the annals of time, language mavens revered mostly by the small class of literati experienced an inferiority complex, believing that for English to grow up, it needed to become more like classical Latin. Well, in Latin and in most languages that are largely based on its rules, “infinitives” consist of one word. In English, which is not a Latin-based “romance” language but rather has roots in what we can most simply think of as Germanic, “infinitives” are created with the word “to” and the root form of the verb. Thus, in French, a romance language, “manger” means “to eat.” You’d have a hard time splitting “manger,” but “to eat” is a completely different animal. So feel free to say “To boldly go,” with the added perk of thus being able to use the same “meter,” iambic pentameter, that Shakespeare used.
Misusing “which” when you should have used “that.”
No one who’s not specifically on the lookout for this mistake will care.
Yes, this is a “rule” based on the difference between “restrictive (essential)” versus “nonrestrictive (nonessential)” clauses, a distinction you can check out here and here. But in fact, the very mavens who most vociferously shriek about this rule have been caught making this mistake even as they rant against it.
I do notice this mistake because I’m sensitive to the restrictive/nonrestrictive issue, which many people struggle to punctuate properly, often leaving me struggling to figure out where a nonrestrictive phrase ends and the main sentence resumes. But my point is that if your story is sweeping your readers along, this is the kind of mistake most of them will be swept right past. If you use whichever option sounds right in your sentence, you probably won’t spend your valuable creative energy thinking about the choice at all.
Bottom Line: If you have doubts about your command of “grammar,” or the correct kinds of usage that will make your writing clear and accessible, concentrate on punctuation, which above all is about clarity, and on verb forms, like the choice between “he had came home” and “he had come home,” a variation from the standard that will make it look as if you haven’t mastered your tools. Ignore even Microsoft Word if it tells you it’s not okay to write “Grammar is a skill I wish I was better at.”
I didn’t know this! It’s worth checking your KDP publications to make sure your buyers are getting the edition you want them to have. Thanks to Chris the Story Reading Ape for sharing this.
This is for all self-published writers, both new and old. I recently uploaded a corrected version of the text for my latest novella The Forgotten People to the original I had added and published on the 17th of March this year. Brilliant, I can now expect it to be posted to my books page on Amazon. Right? Wrong!
After communicating with the people at KDP, I realised that it was a case of wasted effort on my part. Why? Because they do not ‘update’ text on any book you’ve already published on KDP. Why not I hear you cry? Why not indeed! While they acknowledged that they could see I had done as I said when they took a look for themselves, it soon became blindingly obvious that while they are there to answer queries, that’s as far as they will go!
Instead, first you have to unpublish the original…
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A cautionary tale from Chris McMullen. My past experience with pirated books echoes his sense that for many of the sites claiming to carry unauthorized copies, tracking them down is a lifelong enterprise. But this looks like something you can spot on Amazon if it happens to you. Thanks, Chris!
Image licensed from Shutterstock.
BEWARE OF BOOK PIRATES
Earlier this year, after publishing a new book, I visited Amazon to check it out. When I finished inspecting the Amazon detail page for my new book, I clicked the link by my author photo to visit my Author Central page. And, boy, was I surprised by what I found.
(A little background: Author Central now shows only my Kindle eBooks by default. Customers have to click the Paperback tab to find my paperback books.)
I noticed one of my better selling books near the top of the list. What stood out is that book is only available in paperback. (For good reason. With thousands of math problems, this particular workbook would not be ideal for Kindle.) Yet, there it was on the list of my Kindle eBooks.
At first thought, I had hoped that Amazon was finally starting to show all…
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These smart tips from Louise Harnby on cleaning up your prose in late edits also work well when you’re looking for those last thousand or so words you need to cut. For example, every time you eliminate a dialogue tag like “said,” you generally cut at least two words. Same with cutting filters (and this is an excellent primer on what that term means). In my “Power-Cutting” posts, I’ve also noted how often the phrases “to me” or “for him” can be cut; they act a lot like Harnby’s “anatomy-based action[s].” For example:
“He offered the book to me” vs. “He offered the book” when “I” am standing right there and the obvious recipient of the book.
I found a whole short-story-full of those kinds of cuts!
I’m currently deep in edits of my “Horse Show Book,” tentatively titled Three Strides Out (more mystery and horses!!), and hope soon to be able to edit at the level Harnby’s discussing here. That’s always a great milestone.
Give your novel a sentence-level workout. Here are 6 common problems, and the solutions that will improve the flow of your fiction and make the prose pop.
Review your novel for 6 common problems. None involve major rewriting, just relatively gentle recasts that will improve your prose significantly, and make your reader’s experience more immersive.
1. Assess invasive adverbs
2. Remove redundant filter words
3. Take the spotlight off speech tags
4. Pick up dropped viewpoint
5. Trim anatomy-based action
6. Turn intention into action
I’ve read articles like this before; this one is clear and useful to remind us all why it’s important to keep doing what we love. As is so often the case these days, it’s an indirect plug for self-publishing. I hope you find it helpful.
by Larry Kahaner
Thanks for sending us your manuscript. The plot is unique, the characters are compelling and the writing is top notch. It’s one of the best books we’ve ever read. Unfortunately, it’s not right for us.
Best Regards, The Publisher
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Just a quick share this morning—I’m deep in editing (I really will publish again soon!). But this is a post everyone can use. Share it far and wide. Thanks again to Chris the Story Reading Ape for making this kind of information available to us all.
on The Write Life:
Now that we’re a few weeks into 2021, let’s all breathe a deep sigh of relief together for overcoming what has to be one of the hardest years we’ve experienced in modern times.
And you made it through! That’s a victory worth celebrating, especially with the people who helped you navigate the chaos with websites filled with guides, tips and tricks, blog posts, podcasts and newsletters to help get better at the one thing you love the most: writing.
If you wrote a novel while under lockdown, good for you! And if you didn’t? Good. For. You.
When it comes to writing, output isn’t the only critical part of the process — it’s just as important to reset, refresh and reinvigorate your writing brain with new techniques that help you write better.
Wherever you’ve landed in your writing journey, we have just the websites that’ll help…
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Here’s a very helpful post from that wizard, Jane Friedman, via Chris the Story Reading Ape (also a wizard). I am not a wizard, but to this comprehensive description of the ways you can publish, I must add this: If you really want to publish, don’t go on Facebook or Twitter and ask, “Can someone tell me how to publish a book?” Your respondents would have to spend the rest of their afternoon telling you what’s available on sites like Friedman’s—she’s an excellent portal. Check through my posts for links to many, many other terrific sites for directions and advice.
My point is, if you really want the answer, it’s out there. Do your research! You can jumpstart your process by following Chris and Jane.
Since 2013, I have been regularly updating this informational chart about the key book publishing paths. It is available as a PDF download (from Jane’s original blog post)—ideal for photocopying and distributing for workshops and classrooms—plus the full text is also below.
One of the biggest questions I hear from authors today: Should I traditionally publish or self-publish?
This is an increasingly complicated question to answer because:
There aren’t big enough capital letters to denote how much I LOVE Anne R. Allen. This is an older article, but it illustrates so well her basic common sense and clear explanatory power. She walks you though the past tenses in English, explaining how using “to be” affects meaning.
I especially like this article (among her many other wonderful pieces) because I’ve also written about the admonition to avoid “was” at all costs. I’ve seen writers turn sentences inside out, making a bloody hash of them, to avoid the verb “to be.” And I’ve noted many times in my own reading how successful, active-voice writers don’t hesitate to use simple “was” as in “The room was empty” when it gets them where they need to be in the shortest amount of time. I’ve just recently lamented posts that suggest that the past progressive tenses can be replaced blindly with the simple past.
I’ve also shared on this blog my own awareness that grammar “rules” are not created equal. The “rules” for forming possessives and using apostrophes are not negotiable. The “rules” that dictate style and voice depend on your choices as a writer and often aren’t so much rules as guidelines for achieving varied effects.
Anne’s post contains multiple links to other discussions of writers’ tools. As she says often, these are your basics if you want to call yourself a writer. Wonderful writers may seem to play havoc with these tools, but the chances are good that they don’t do so by accident but by choice.