Category Archives: style for writers

Some finer points about making your writing sing

A Unsung Use for that Humble Verb, “Said”

Lightning strike--metaphor for the effect of a strategic use of "said."
Making writing zing!

Here’s a topic I’ve never seen discussed: a service the lowly verb “said” can perform.

We get showered with advice about dialogue tags. E.g., if you must use them, use only plain ol’ “said.” If at all possible, don’t use them. As I pointed out in my recent post on strategies for cutting, eliminating the dialogue tag by letting an action do its work can save words almost every time.

But I’ve found “said” to be a strategic device in its own right for managing the rhythm of scenes.

Scenes have peaks and valleys, riffs that build to a turning point in a dramatic exchange, then fall off, only to rise again—mini-crescendos, if you will. And each scene should end on a note of finality, of closure, rather than dribbling off into that bare line break. The high moments, where the scene will turn to its next compelling development, as well as the last line, need the weight of a tough nugget of sound that “punctuates” these peaks.

I suggest humbly that even where it’s not needed for coherence or clarity, “said” can be recruited to supply this rhythmic punch.

Here’s an example to show what I mean. Imagine this as a scene ascending to its close:

“He’ll win.” I paced in front of her, arms flailing. “He’ll have you believing every lie he tells you.”

She studied me with a cool smile.

“I doubt it.”

Nothing wrong with that ending. But I suggest that it feels as if there’s more to come. If so, it doesn’t signal a solid scene ending, a turning point, as scene endings should. Let’s add the tag:

“He’ll win.” I paced in front of her, arms flailing. “He’ll have you believing every lie he tells you.”

She studied me with a cool smile.

“I doubt it,” she said.

No, “she said” is not “needed.” But if this is a peak transition in a scene or an ending line. “said” brings the moment home with a satisfying pop.

Obviously, like all writing choices, this one should be employed purposefully. Often you can tweak the crescendo line so it ends with its own strong beat. But it doesn’t hurt to have “she said” or “he said” or “they said” in reserve.

Have you ever used “said” this way? Share your examples!

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Power Cutting II: Quick Line- Edit Tricks to Streamline Your Prose

I cut a 107,000-word manuscript to 90,000 words; a 106,000-word ms. to under 100,000.

Was there pain involved? A little, I guess.

But why give an agent a reason to reject a query right in the first line? Querying a 150,000-word mystery screams that I don’t know genre rules.

It may sound as if I think that cutting serves only a specific purpose, to meet genre requirements. But I’ve found as well how tightening can enliven prose and enrich readers’ experiences. The process forces me to look at what matters in a scene or a story.

Case in point: the original draft of King of the Roses was 700 pages. My wonderful St. Martin’s editor told me to lose 200 of them. What a difference. (I had to learn the hard way that the skills I used then should be used every time. Don’t be me.)

Alarmed green smiley

I’ve posted previously about the “big-ticket” strategies I discovered in my cutting process. Here are some specific tricks you can use to “line-edit,” that is, tackle your prose sentence by sentence.

These reflect my belief that every word counts. It’s great to watch a single select-delete take 500 words off your word count, but if you chop 20 words from every page of a 300-page novel, that’s 6,000 words!

You can find most of these strategies in various “how-to” books for writers, not least of which may be old stand-bys like Strunk and White. Many look really obvious. They are—but when I began to line-edit, I was surprised how often I’d missed opportunities to use them. Always, of course, clarity comes first! But when you absolutely must find that last few thousand words, these are simple tools.

  • Opt for contractions when you can.

She had seen is three words; she’d seen is two

  • Exchange many (or even just two) words for one:

He took the gun out of his pocket/He took the gun from his pocket.

If I couldn’t come up with a solution/If I couldn’t supply/provide/suggest/manage, etc., a solution (more precision as well as economy!)

  • Cut or reduce what I’ll call “directives” when they don’t add information. These are often prepositional phrases.

He offered the flower to me. I took it from him.

He offered the flower. I took it.

She walked ahead of me/She walked ahead.

I logged into my computer/I logged in.

  • Eliminate prepositional phrases by turning the object (a noun) into an adjective.

A castle with many chambers/a many-chambered castle.

  • Reduce dialogue tags to actions.

“I can’t do that,” said Jane, shaking her head.

“I can’t do that.” Jane shook her head.

Caveat: make sure who’s speaking is clear. Actions just before or after dialogue should be performed by the speaker of the dialogue.

  • Combine sentences. This strategy can sometimes make one verb or modifier do the work of two.

I probably owed my friends some accounting of how I’d ended up on the news. So far they hadn’t asked, and for that I was grateful.

So far my friends hadn’t asked how I’d ended up on the news, and for that forbearance I was grateful. (26–20, even with a clarifying word added).

  • Verbalize! Many words have both a noun form and a verb form. Usually the verb form is less wordy and, as a bonus, more active. Many style books will have lists of these noun forms.

Made a decision/decided

Took into consideration/considered

Had a picnic at the park/picnicked at the park

  • One option for cutting that is a little more subtle but useful when you become aware of it is the opening sentence that explains what the following paragraph does. (thanks to a writing-group colleague for showing me how many times I committed this sin).

Austin traffic took the nerves of a fighter pilot. That morning gave me more hair-raising near misses than usual, people driving as if lane lines were just decorations. Turning onto the university campus, I congratulated myself on having let loose only a few muffled curses.

Austin traffic that morning gave me more hair-raising near misses than usual, people driving as if lane lines were just decorations. Turning onto the university campus, I congratulated myself on having let loose only a few muffled curses.

I love my clever little opener, but when I need cuts, doesn’t the paragraph work fine without those nine extra words?

  • Related: the opening sentence that you then repeat in different words. Again, I catch these more often than I’d like to admit.

The question didn’t faze me. I’d spent half my life preparing to answer it.

I’d spent half my life preparing to answer that question.

Note, there’s nothing wrong with any of these choices. My focus here is that time when you really, really must cut. Hate to slice out your beautiful descriptive or emotional passage? These simple strategies might buy the space you need to let your darlings be.

What strategies do you use to pare the last edges off your prose?

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No-Comma Zones!

Cartoon policeman

Grammar Police do exist.

They’re called agents.

I present as evidence a memory of my then-agent saying that when she saw a comma after “and” or “but” in a query or manuscript, she quit reading.

I consider her automatic rejection a bit extreme, but she highlights an important fact: agents are always in need of a reason to move on to the next query. If something as simple as a misplaced comma can earn instant rejection, why not work on getting such small triggers fixed?

I’ve created a list of what I consider five basic comma rules; I argue that if your questionable comma doesn’t fit one of these categories, you’re better off leaving it out. Many times a sentence’s meaning is perfectly clear without commas even if technically you should use them. Commas, correctly placed, control rhythm and emphasis in sentences, and where you use one can be a judgment call.

However, there are a few places where commas tend to crop up when they really shouldn’t. In these instances, they can interrupt rhythm rather than improve it and in some cases, they actually muddle meaning.

Poor little car loaded with baggage on a tangled highway

Here are three “no comma zones” you should be aware of.

1. Around essential modifiers when the essential element is a name.

Understanding essential vs. non-essential modifiers can be daunting. Here, I’ll review the protocol, but check out this link for additional guidance and more good examples.

A non-essential modifier provides additional information that really is just that—additional. It isn’t needed for the sentence to make sense.

The old car, which was a lot like the one my grandfather used to drive, had been repainted bright blue.

Take out “which was a lot like the one my grandfather used to drive,” and the sentence works just fine.

Non-essential modifiers take TWO commas, one before and one after. Think of the commas as “cuts” you could use to lift out the non-essential stuff. But consider:

The car that gives you the most mileage is the one you should buy.

Without the modifier, we have:

The car is the one you should buy.

Since the point of the sentence is to say which car, the modifier is essential to the work the sentence is meant to do.

Essential modifiers DO NOT TAKE COMMAS. Using them around these elements violates the “no comma zone.” And that is even true—especially true—when the essential element is a name.

You may have been taught that “appositives” always take commas. They certainly can. Except when they are essential elements. To see how you can decide, look at this:

Author, Steven King, writes a lot of thrillers.

The commas mean you can lift the name out. Try it.

Author writes a lot of thrillers.

See?

If you have so many commas you really want to use them up, you can write instead,

The author, Steven King, writes a lot of thrillers.

Personally, I would use commas in this instance only if we were talking about some book of which Steven King is the author, not if we are talking about him in general as an author. Compare “The author Steven King writes a lot of thrillers.” In my view, that’s perfectly fine, even though “Steven King” is technically an appositive.

Typewriter with question marks on the page

2. Between a subject and its verb

The cat with the calico coat, is my sister’s.

You wouldn’t do this? I’ve been in enough writing groups to know that a surprising number of people do. Understandable confusion arises when the “subject” is followed by some kind of interrupting modifier, which would be set off with commas:

The cat with the calico cat, however, is my sister’s.

In addition, looong subjects that may have their own internal commas can make it hard to detect the subject’s verb.

For example, in the sentence I just wrote, the “subject” extends from “looong subjects” all the way to “commas”; “can make” is the relevant verb. So sticking a “pause” between “commas” and “can” would violate this rule. Think of it as a “pause” that unnecessarily breaks up the sentence’s natural flow.

Big question mark in clouds

3. After introductory “And” or “But.”

If you are a disciple of Word’s grammar checker, you may never commit the supposed sin of starting a sentence with “And” or “But.” But doing so is completely acceptable, as long as it’s done in moderation. What’s NOT acceptable would be

But, doing so is completely acceptable, as long as it’s done in moderation.

The only possible reason to use a comma in this construction is to emphasize the “But.” In fact, commas in general throw emphasis onto the word directly before them. Such a strategy, though, should be a conscious decision. You couldn’t credibly claim you want to emphasize every “but” or “and” you write.

The Bottom Line:

While many excellent blog posts have been published about comma usage, in my view, these three cases of “no comma zones” have gotten short shrift. But each can act as a trigger for that agent or editor with a full inbox. Why not keep them reading long enough to discover your great work?

Book with pages folded like a heart

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“Ah, That Was Easy!” — A Quick, Simple Trick to Make Your Quotes Stand Out – by Anastasia Chipelski…

Here’s a thoughtful discussion of an issue that confounds a lot of us: how to add “attribution” to quotations and dialogue. In other words, how to clarify who said what.
Fiction writers, I know, sometimes feel hemmed in by admonitions to stick with simple “says” and “said.” Anastasia Chipelski shares some thoughts on how to handle nonfiction attributions. Fiction writers can remember to use “action beats” to escape ponderous repetition of “said.”
“I’ll try to answer your questions.” Derek shifted in his chair. “If they’re not too hard.”
And exchanges between two people won’t need an attribution on every line.

On my other blog, collegecompositionweekly.com, I summarize articles from research journals. One rule I follow is always to attribute claims to the source, which prevents me from implicitly endorsing them as truth. So I rely on “argues,” “claims,” “contends,” etc. Sometimes I fall back on “writes” or “states,” which leave the claim in the source’s corner when he or she does seem to be offering a verifiable fact.

These decisions always take a lot of thought. I personally think colorful attributions should be used sparingly. Let the dialogue and the action do most of the work. Thanks to the Story Reading Ape, as always, for sharing a useful piece!

Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog

on The Write Life:

As an editor, one of the first pieces of feedback I give to writers is to vary word choice and sentence structure. But there’s one place where I go in the complete opposite direction: quote attribution.

When I started managing a local alt-weekly five years ago, I inherited their style guide. I could change it, but I decided to give it a little test drive first.

A simple “subject says” is the best format for quote attribution

That style guide recommended that writers almost exclusively use a simple “subject says” format to attribute quotes. I bristled a little. Taking all the wonderful varied ways to frame a quote and jettisoning them in favor of “says” felt wrong, sparse and cold.

But …

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Is A Split Infinitive Still A Grammar Mistake In Writing? – by Derek Haines…

Hear, hear. One of the silliest rules people pass around. I particularly like the way Derek’s examples show how moving the adverb around changes meaning.

I’d add two points. One, “to boldly go” sounds so right because it’s iambic pentameter, one of the most natural rhythms for spoken English (Shakespeare’s meter).

Second, many “rules” like this evolved because 17th- and 18th-century pedants wanted to “improve” English by making it behave like Latin–ignoring the fact that English falls into an entirely different class of language than Latin. But hey, if Latin (one-word) infinitives can’t be split, we shouldn’t split English infinitives, either, even if they are two words.

Thanks to the Story Reading Ape for sharing this useful post!

Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog

on Just Publishing Advice:

Almost every style guide will tell you should avoid the split infinitive.

But is this generalised rule always valid?

We all know the famous Star Trek example of breaking the rule: to boldly go where no man has gone before.

It would sound awkward if I applied good English grammar. My grammar checker correction says it should read: to go where no man has gone before boldly.

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The pros and cons of using editing programs #amwriting

This piece accords with my experience. I haven’t used the “pro” versions of editing software, so maybe they would work better than the free versions, but I’ve found that the suggestions are wrong as often as they are right. Here’s a quote from the article that I agree with:
“A person with no knowledge of grammar will not benefit from relying on Grammarly or any other editing program for advice. There is no way to bypass learning the craft of writing.”
Do you agree? If not, why not?

Life in the Realm of Fantasy

A number of people have asked me about editing programs, and if I use them in my own work. I do–but also, I don’t.

I rely on my knowledge of grammar and what I intend to convey more than I do editing programs, which are not as useful as we wish they were.

You may have found that your word processing program has spellcheck and some minor editing assists. Spellcheck is notorious for both helping and hindering you.

Spellcheck doesn’t understand context, so if a word is misused but spelled correctly, it may not alert you to an obvious error.

  • There, their, they’re.
  • To, too, two.
  • Its, it’s

Grammarly is an editing program I use for checking my own work, in tandem with Pro Writing Aid. I pay a monthly fee for the professional versions of these two programs. Each one has strengths and weaknesses.

For me, especially in…

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Writing in “Deep Point of View”

Big word "book" in "lettepress."Here’s some great help with a difficult concept:

What is “Deep point of view” and how do you achieve it?

Thanks to Lisa Hall-Wilson at Writers in the Storm. Big green smiley

 

 

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Dealing with ‘seemed’ and other tentative language in fiction – by Louise Harnby…

This column from Louise Harnby, via Chris the Story Reading Ape, tackles the recurring problem of how to convey information about multiple characters in a scene without breaking point of view. It’s certainly a problem I struggle with. These are good reminders that there are better ways than “seemed” or “appeared to” to get across what that non-pov character might be up to. Check it out!

Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog

If your characters seem or appear to be doing or feeling something – probably, maybe, perhaps – then you might be using half measures to express a good chunk of that action or emotion.

Uncertainty can drag a story down.

Here’s how to edit for it at line level.

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A Manifesto for Overwriters!

Overgrown planet!

No one knows better than I do the anguish of being an inveterate overwriter. Here are some of the ways my penchant manifests itself:

  • Stacking up adjectives, sometimes without any particular point other than the love of words. One example at random from my Failed Novel: “By the time he pulled out once more onto 41, the Tamiami Trail, the sun had turned dusty red behind him, piecing out of the sky faint, ominously pendant, pink-tinted blooms of cloud.”
  • Piling up metaphors and images until I end up with a bean soup of ingredients that don’t always play well together and end up siphoning reader attention away from characters and into the quagmire of the language itself. . . . Need I say more?
  • Hunting obsessively in thesaurus.com for THE PERFECT WORD so as to avoid settling for what Mark Twain would have called “the lightning bug”—but ending up with a choice (often a verb) that is so far out there that writing groups suggest gently that I probably ought to settle for something a little less . . . well, I’m having to go to thesaurus.com to find THIS right word. “Arresting”? No, that’s not right. Disruptive? Intrusive, contentious, militant. . . . You get the point.
  • Diving into long passages of introspection in which I explore the character’s relation to life, the universe, and everything from so many directions readers probably feel as if they’re inside a disco ball.

What a dangerous way to write! Here are some of the sad consequences of this indulgence:

  • Too much verbiage, even the brilliant kind I am so clearly expert at, slows the story pace. Readers emerge from even a page or two exhausted, just wanting to move on—or quit.
  • Too many details, descriptions, and distractions dilute important moments in a scene so that what should be on display gets lost in the window dressing. Scenes should have a structure that builds to the crucial turn, but overwriting drags out scenes so that every event, line of dialogue, metaphor, or action carries equal weight.
  • The words themselves start demanding the focus that should go to the characters and their interactions.
  • The backstory in introspection loses its force when not linked to the characters’ actual experiences in time. If we’re told in a long, over-filled expository paragraph on page 10, among seventy or so other details, that a character had a traumatic experience at age seven, by the time we see that trauma play out on page 100, we’ve forgotten its source. We don’t know about that trauma from being told it exists, but from seeing in the moment what it does.

I’ve seen writing group members defend some pretty egregious excess by insisting that what they’re writing is “literary,” a form in which the language itself becomes the focus rather than the “plot.” I guess there was a time when I retreated behind this rationale myself. But I’ve come to apply terms like “lazy” and “self-indulgent” to pile-it-up-on-the-page writing these days. I confess I’ve arrived at this judgment after seeing how some colleagues’ drafts exhaust me when they do all the things I tend to do.

So the moral here must be “Don’t Overwrite.” Followed by “10 Steps to Avoid Overwriting.” Right?

Umm, not quite.

Instead, I’m going to claim that, in its proper place, your tendency to do all the things I listed above (and more?) is a strength!

So: X Reasons to Love Your Curse.

Actually, there’s one real reason you should value your overwriting impulses: unlike your more verbally impoverished colleagues, you overwriters generate a lot of text! You never have to sit and try to “come up with” an image or a detail. You’ve already poured out a grand effusion of writerly stuff.

This means:

Experimentation! You know you’ll cut four-fifths of what you generate. So you can let the words wander. See where they lead. Mixed metaphor? No problem. It’ll get put to rights—or in its place—in the final cut.

Choice! Somewhere among all those words and sentences and images, there’s one that really produces that scintillating “this is it!” shiver. You just have to clear away the litter that keeps it from doing its job. And don’t throw out all the efforts that didn’t answer this particular need. They aren’t necessarily substandard or failed. They may work perfectly in the scene you’re writing next.

And although all that introspection may not work for your harried readers, it’s your way into your characters. You end up knowing them intimately, as you must if you and your readers are to willingly share their worlds for 99,000 words.

Same with world-building. Too many details? Even if you cut that street-by-street description, you still live in those alleyways and cul-de-sacs in your mind.

And who knows? Maybe you, more than your verbally limited colleagues, actually will one day produce a literary masterpiece. After all, it’s from the piling up of words, images, sentences, that the “voice” that commonly defines “literary” emerges.

The key, of course, is to actually do the CUTTING that converts your curse to a strength. I know how hard it is to hack out those lovely lines that flowed from that sacred font. I’ve found that I finally have to be told, indisputably, that X words have to go. Then it actually starts to become fun to watch how paragraphs firm up, cohere, how fast the lines race by and how hard they slice.

One painful but potentially useful exercise: take a particularly long, detail-and-event laden chapter, and vow to reduce it by one-half. Can’t do it? Try for one-third. Just to see what you get.

(Hmmm. Maybe I should do that with this post. . . . :D)

Do you have strategies that make your overwriting indulgences work for you?

 

 

 

 

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Show, Don’t Tell = Use Body Language

Some useful thoughts here about those little diction-level fits our writing can give us. I do suggest that we don’t go crazy about issues like this. It’s not worth torquing a sentence into an unreadable mess just to avoid “was.” But I am with Dan 100% on “look.”

Dan Alatorre

img_2351-19

This lesson is invaluable, so read carefully.

Wait, does invaluable mean no value or lots of value? Quick internet search… Okay.

Yeah, there’s gold in today’s lesson.

BODY LANGUAGE = GOOD

CRUTCH WORDS = BAD

Also, a way to find and deal with your crutch words. Didn’t know you had those? You do.

Tag, your manuscript is it!

First, let’s discuss dialogue tags: those little phrases that follow a section of dialogue.

“Run,” he said.

“Why?” she asked.

“There’s a T-Rex coming!” He exclaimed.

“Oh,” she said warily.

Okay?

One of my favorite things to do is to wait until a new author writes  “Why?” she asked and then I say, “Lose the tag, we know she asked – the question mark gave it away.”

It’s fun for…

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