Category Archives: writing novels

Writing, revising, selling your fiction books

Hyphen, Em Dash, En Dash (revisited) #amwritng

Following up on an earlier post on hyphens from Connie J. Jasperson, here’s a handy discussion of the different uses of dashes and hyphens.

I’d like to add that, if you’re writing on a Mac, you can create an em dash by typing Space/Option/Hyphen. My new wireless keyboard, a Microsoft product, allows for most Mac keystrokes, but not that one, and I miss it.

There are other key combinations that can produce an en dash, but I seldom use this symbol so I don’t know them. Oh, and there are all kinds of symbols and special characters you can produce with various key formulas, especially math symbols. One day I’ll get around to exploring them all.

Another point of interest: both PC and Mac keyboards make using an em dash for interrupted dialogue really annoying. If you type dialogue like

“I thought I told you”

you can use an em dash to show that the dialogue has been cut off by an event or another speaker:

“I thought I told you—”

What you can’t see here because WordPress made the correction, is that, using smart quotes as we usually must, in Word, the quote marks after the em dash will be backward!

You can make them come out correctly by typing a period, as in

“I thought I told you—.”

In my experience, this construction doesn’t take the period, though some style sheets may differ. If you don’t want the period, you have to reposition your cursor (use the arrow keys), delete the period, then move your cursor again before hitting return.

I’ve tried storing the corrected text in Autocorrect, but so far that hasn’t worked reliably. However, good news! If you are using smart quotes, Find and Replace, that ever-useful tool, will usually turn the errant quote marks around.

One last snark about Microsoft keyboards: if you do want to use an em dash as I’ve illustrated to show interrupted conversation, you have to type a letter after the two hyphens, then space so the hyphens will convert to a dash, then backspace to delete the letter. I guess I could use Find/Replace creatively again to correct this, but it’s one of those little annoyances. Anybody got a better fix for em dashes on a PC keyboard?

Thanks, Connie, for another useful post!

Life in the Realm of Fantasy

We’re halfway through week 2 of National Novel Writing Month. Today we’re continuing our review the rules for common punctuation. This essay first posted on Feb 6, 2019. As always, if you’re already up on these rules, thank you for stopping by and happy writing!


Over the years, I have seen many books written by wonderful authors who overuse em or en dashes.

I also tend to do that in blogging and in Facebook posts, and my first drafts can be peppered with them. Em dashes are a kind of author’s crutch because it is easy to rely on them.

Trust me, readers find it distracting to see an em dash in every paragraph. Some editors don’t want to see one on every page. Their point of view is that the em dash is like any other repetitive word in a manuscript. As a tool, it’s useful as a way…

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Hyphens and Compound Words #amwriting

Here’s some helpful enlightenment on one of the more annoying editing problems we all face. My own bête-noir is what Connie J. Jasperson tells me are “closed compounds”: combinations that are joined into a single word. I keep telling myself to try being consistent—is it “web site” or “website”? In some cases, if you’re writing for a particular publication, you can consult a style guide (I’m pretty sure that’s two words). If not, it’s off to a dictionary and then a round of “find/replace.” 🙂

Life in the Realm of Fantasy

National Novel Writing Month is in full swing. I am busy writing incomprehensible words that will require a great deal of revising and editing. But all that aside, this perfectly good post on hyphens and compound words was just lying around, so here you go! It was first posted on June 26, 2017, and since then, nothing has changed in the world of hyphenation. However, we can always use a little refresher when it comes to compound words and their usage.


Compound words are frequently a source of grief when I receive my manuscript back from my editor. Despite my best efforts, I habitually hyphenate words that should not be hyphenated.

Most people know that a compound word combines 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…

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Why “Start With the Action” Messes Up So Many Writers – by Janice Hardy…

This piece from @Janice_Hardy echoes some of the best advice I’ve ever heard: Start with conflict, not crisis. How people deal with a crisis is much more interesting than the crisis itself.

Apropos though of making sure *something* is “happening,” Hardy is right on that as well. In my experience as a reader it takes special genius to create a character so interesting I’ll listen to him or her THINK for pages and pages. As a mortal, I’ve found that setting up the story conflict in a scene built around the central characters gets me into the story so much more effectively. I’ve also learned that any introspective scene that goes on for more than a page–or even half a page–needs some other character to jump in and interrupt it.

So check out Hardy’s advice here. I think it’s spot on.

Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog

on Fiction University:

Sometimes really great advice is anything but helpful.

If I took a poll for the most common writing advice, “start with the action” would make the list.

Which it should, as it’s great advice. But it’s also like saying, “show, don’t tell.” We know we ought to do it, but we don’t always know how, and those four words don’t help us with the beginnings of our novels.

This can be especially hard on new writers, because they might think they’re doing everything right, but still get negative feedback or even rejections on their manuscripts. “I do start with action,” they cry. “Can’t you see that car barreling off that cliff there? What do I have to do, blow up a planet?”

Well, no.

Maybe it’s the movie industry and all those summer blockbusters, but say “action scene” and most people envision something Michael Bay-ish—car chases…

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For the Amusement of My Writer Friends

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I’ve been AWOL recently because I’ve been busy writing! I’m trying to slide Book 3 of my mystery trilogy into a channel where it will start floating right along (I suspect you get that metaphor), and I’ve been keyboarding the longhand draft of my “Horse Show Book” (great titles, huh?) that I just completed last week. My hope is that the closing scenes of this psychological suspense/mystery will work as well when I type them as they seemed when I (literally) penned them. We’ll see.

Apropos of that milestone, I had the following conversation with a non-writer friend the other day. I wonder if only writers will “get” this:

Friend: When are you going to publish your Horse Show Book?

Me: Oh, it will be a good while.

Friend: But you said you’d finished it!

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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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Verb Tenses You’ve Never Heard of But Use Everyday

I am unable to resist posting this. Sorry. Ignore at will.

And oh, yeah, “lie/lay/lain” is CORRECT here.

If you are interested, you should be able to find the group “Society for the Preservation of Irregular Verbs” in your social media. Looks like fun!

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The Biggest Writing Craft Issue New Novelists Face, and 7 Ways to Avoid It. – by Anne R. Allen…

Thanks for more important advice from one of my favorite bloggers, Anne R. Allen. I think I’m at a “chaos point” myself right now, but at least I do have that last scene in mind–like Anne recommends!

Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog

We all have a writing craft issue or two…or three or four or five, no matter where we are in our careers. Yes, even professional authors who have written ten or more novels. I’m wrestling with some myself with my forthcoming Camilla book, Catfishing in America, which is still, alas, only half way there. It’s at that stage that Melodie Campbell called the “Chaos Point” in her wonderful post for us “My Novel is a Mess.”

Thing is—creating compelling narrative takes more than great characters, sparkling dialogue and exciting action.  All those elements have to come together in one story.

One story.

Continue reading HERE

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100 Common Publishing Terms – by Robert Lee Brewer…

I suspect I’m not the only one for whom this list is useful! Thanks to Chris the Story Reading Ape for sharing it!

Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog

on Writers Digest:

Here’s a list of 100 common publishing terms and their definitions, including the meanings of ARC, high concept, simultaneous submissions, and so much more.

Get Full Details HERE

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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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The Hardest Comma Rule!

Check the five basic comma rules
Comma Love

Mathina Calliope, at Jane Friedman’s site, does a terrific job of explaining essential/restrictive versus nonessential/nonrestrictive commas, with lot of examples. I know from many observations that writers struggle with this distinction. It’s one of what I argue are “the only comma rules you’ll ever need,” but it’s the hardest to explain in a short space. So head over and check out her discussion.

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