Friday, December 26, 2014

Punctuation Problems: Clarifying Information vs. Additional Information

Can you tell me the difference in meaning between these two sentences?

     1. Olya entered the chapel and approached the altar where Dima knelt with his wife.
     2. Olya entered the chapel and approached the altar, where Dima knelt with his wife.

The only difference is the comma—what does that little comma do? It separates the sentence into two portions, which serves to inform the reader that the second portion of the sentence is adding some extra information. The comma, in essence, informs the reader that the second part of the sentence is not necessary to understand the first part.

Without the comma, the sentence implies that that last portion of the sentence (“where Dima knelt with his wife”) is clarifying the first part, that the sentence wouldn’t be complete without it. If that last portion of the sentence is necessary, then that implies that the “altar” that was mentioned needs to be distinguished from some other altar in the area.

In other words, here is what each of our example sentences above is really saying:

     1. Olya entered the chapel. There were several altars, and she approached the one where Dima knelt with his wife.
     2. Olya entered the chapel and approached the only altar. Dima knelt beside the altar with his wife.

See the difference? Without the comma, the implication is that the second portion of the sentence is necessary to clarify the first portion. With the comma, the implication is that the second portion of the sentence is extra information which isn’t needed to understand the first portion.

Imagine that you and a friend are headed to the movies, when you get a call that you need to stop and meet a secret agent to receive a package related to your next secret agent mission. (We’re all imagining that you have a very interesting life.) You tell your friend that you have to stop to meet this agent at the park.

Now, how you phrase this statement would depend on how many parks are in the area, right? If there were only one park in the whole town, then you might simply say:

     “We have to stop at the park.”

Since there’s only one park in the area, your friend would know what you mean. However, if there were several parks in the area, you would need to add additional information to clarify which park you meant:

     “We have to stop at the park where you met my sister.”

See how it works? The phrase “where you met my sister” serves as clarification—without that information, it would not be clear which park you meant. Since the information is necessary, it should not be separated from the noun it clarifies (park) by a comma. If you did so, the sentence would read strangely:

     “We have to stop at the park, where you met my sister.”

Placing a comma here implies that you are adding extra information, which in this case seems rather nonsensical. Why would you mention, apropos of nothing, that your friend met your sister in the park? Your friend would know that. With the comma, the sentence essentially means this:

     “We have to stop at the park. By the way, you met my sister at this park.”

That just reads like particularly awkward maid-and-butler dialog. Imagine your friend looking at you in confusion, and saying, “Yeah, I know that. Why are you telling me?”

Remember: clarifying information should usually not be separated from the word it clarifies by a comma.


Monday, December 22, 2014

How to Use the Passive Voice

In his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King highlighted what he considered the two hallmarks of poor writing: adverbs (which we’ve already discussed here) and the passive voice, which we will discuss today.

What is the passive voice? It is a manner of writing that takes the direct object of the sentence (whoever or whatever is having something done to them) and makes them the subject of the sentence (the person or thing who is doing something.) So a normal, active-voice sentence would read like this:

       Gretta    painted      a picture.
     (Subject)   (verb)  (direct object)

And a sentence in the passive voice reads like this:

     The picture         was             painted               by Gretta.
     (New subject)  (form of    (past participle   (Original subject,
                             “to be”)     form of verb)     now an indirect object)

Now, as usual, you don’t need to remember all of the grammatical terms that I’ve listed above. All you need to remember is that a passive sentence is a sentence written backwards. The passive voice generally weakens your writing, making it boring and difficult to read.

I could dig much more deeply into what constitutes the passive voice and how to identify it, but I’ll be honest—I don’t think I need to. Perhaps it is because writers and English teachers have taken Mr. King’s complaints to heart, but the passive voice doesn’t seem to be much of a problem anymore. Just as I mentioned with adverbs, people seem to have learned that the passive voice is a convention that should be shunned and are generally doing a good job of it (at least in the manuscripts I’ve edited).

So instead of railing any further on the passive voice, I’m going to give you some advice on when the passive voice is permissible:

When you want to emphasize the object of the sentence over the subject. It’s not a common situation, but every now and then, the object of the sentence needs greater focus than anything else.

     All five keys were needed to open the door.

This could be written as, “The door needed all five keys to open,” but that would place greater emphasis on the door. In this case, the keys are clearly more important.

When the subject of the sentence is unknown. Sometimes, your characters might not know who performed an action. For instance:

     The painting had been stolen.

While this could be phrased, “Someone had stolen the painting,” the passive voice can be used to place emphasis on what is known and to avoid the useless “someone.” We know someone stole the painting whether or not you actually use the word, so this is one of those rare cases where the passive voice can actually be stronger, less redundant, and more focused than the active voice.

When it’s not important who performed the action. Your readers don’t need to know every little bit of extraneous information. For instance, you might have a paragraph like this in a story:

     Nils and Gretta hurried to the hospital and arrived with only minutes to spare. The baby was delivered before Gretta could even don a hospital gown.

In this case, it’s really not important who delivered the baby—that’s not central to the story. While we could say, “Doctor Bosch delivered the baby,” we don’t need to; plus, that would just add another random name to the story for readers to remember. If the name isn’t going to be important to the story, then it’s probably better not to mention it.

In scientific documents. I don’t mean that you should use the passive voice if you are personally writing a scientific document—I mean that you can use the passive voice for the text of a scientific document that appears in your story. For better or worse, the passive voice can be quite common in lab reports or scientific articles, as many people feel that it establishes an “objective tone.” (That is, it avoids use of the first person.) While scientific documents can be written objectively without slipping into passive voice, they may feel more genuine to your readers if you use the passive. The same can be said for legal or business documents.

In dialog. Sometimes, people speak in the passive voice, and you might want to reflect that in your dialog. Perhaps you have a slimy businessperson or politician who is constantly trying to evade responsibility for any of the consequences that their actions have wrought—they might speak in the passive voice with irritating frequency. Try to use this one sparingly, though.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Constructing Proper Paragraphs with Dialog

In this post, I answered the question, “How do I know when to end one paragraph and start a new one?” I also mentioned in that article that we would discuss a few of the rules of paragraphing later. Welcome to later, friends!

There is one simple rule of writing paragraphs that I often see broken by new writers, and it relates to dialog: don’t have the dialog of more than one character in a single paragraph. If a new character begins to speak, make a new paragraph. It’s that simple.

     “Wait, so that story of you protecting the girl was made up?” Dinah asked.
     “Not all of it,” Rachelle replied, hunching her shoulders. “Those men were leering at her, and they could have been about to mistreat her. So I just made sure to walk between her and them. As protection.”
     “So . . . all you did was walk to work?”

Usually, you can connect a character’s actions to their dialog, as with Rachelle hunching her shoulders above. So if you have a character performing actions in the middle of dialog but they’re not speaking, it is often a good idea to give them their own paragraph as well.

     “I didn’t just walk to work! I put myself out there.”
     Dinah shook her head, rubbing her temples.
     “I was protecting the girl,” Rachelle continued. “I was stopping the problem before it could begin.”
     “It’s not a problem until it begins,” Dinah replied. “You protected her from a problem you made up. And now the police are out there looking to arrest a couple of men that didn’t actually commit a crime.”
     Rachelle somehow hunched her shoulders even further and folded her arms in a pose that Dinah could only describe as “petulant.”

The only easy exception to this rule that I can think of is if you are listing a few related bits of dialog in a row:

     Dinah sighed. This was partially her fault. She should have known better than to simply trust Rachelle on this issue. She thought back on the day before. “The way Rachelle sees things and the way things are ain’t usually very similar,” Bank had warned her. “Rachelle always wants to see herself as some sort of paragon instead of just regular folk like the rest of us,” Ginny had said. Why hadn’t she listened?

But that is something to be used sparingly. Most of the time, keep to the simple rule that when a new character begins speaking, a new paragraph should begin.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Accents and Dialog: To Use, or Not To Use?

Accents and dialects—as in a manner of pronunciation peculiar to a particular person or group of people—can be difficult to convey in written prose. Usually, writers deliberately misspell words to reflect how they are actually pronounced with a certain accent. For example:

     “Oh, Huck, I bust out a-cryin’ en grab her up in my arms, en say, ‘Oh, de po’ little thing! De Lord God Amighty fogive po’ ole Jim, kaze he never gwyne to fogive hisself as long’s he live!’ Oh, she was plumb deef en dumb, Huck, plumb deef en dumb — en I’d ben atreat’n her so!” –Jim, from Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.

     “Sorry to do anythin’ as may cause an interruption to such wery pleasant proceedin’s, as the king said wen he dissolved the parliament.”
–Sam Weller, from Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers.

     “Could ye manage ta go ten minutes without perforating yer aorta? Just once?!?” Durkon, from Rich Burlew’s The Order of the Stick.

Accents and dialects in print can range from heavy alterations to nearly every word (as in the case of Jim above) to minor alterations to just a few words (as in the case of Durkon).

On the one hand, accents are a prominent part of cultural identity and daily life. We would be remiss not to include them in our writing from time to time. Many characters just don’t come across as strongly without their accent. Characters from certain cultures or ethnicities can seem unrealistic, or even offensive, without the proper accent.

On the other hand, deliberately misspelling words to convey an accent can quickly render a passage of text difficult if not impossible to read. Many readers will find such passages irritating; and if there’s enough of them, those readers might just walk away from the story.

Here’s a few tips for incorporating accents and dialects into your writing:

Know the purpose of the accent: Why is this accent part of your story? Is it conveying important information about the character? Is it adding to the realism of the narrative? Or did you just feel like writing an accent? Accents aren't a gimmick to attract readers; they're actually more likely to drive readers away. Try to make sure that the benefits of the accent outweigh the potential negative reader response.

Try to keep words recognizable: In our examples above, many of the altered words are still immediately recognizable. De, fogive, hisself, anythin’, ye, yer—especially in context, none of these are difficult to interpret. Other words, such as kaze and gwyne, have gone so far afield from their actual spellings that they force the reader to pause and sound them out. It forces them, temporarily, out of the story.

Don’t count on people reading the passages out loud: Unless you’re writing a script, you’re not writing something that is intended to be read aloud. Your defense of the accent might be that “it’s perfectly understandable if you read it out loud.” But just remember—many people will be reading your work in situations where they cannot read it out loud. Many others simply won’t want to. Still others will attempt to read it out loud but will be unfamiliar enough with the accent that they still won’t understand it.

Focus on unusual words, diction, or idioms: Accents and dialects often come with unusual words or phrases, such as Jim’s “she was plumb deef.” If you take out the misspellings, you can still get a bit of an idea of his speech simply from his use of the word plumb. “She was plumb deaf.” If you use the word haver (to babble or ramble foolishly), many readers will understand that your character is Scottish. Since the Russian language doesn’t have the articles a or the, many Russians have trouble learning to use those words in English. This can result in sentences such as, “We must find bag and then quickly return to car.” There are all useful methods of conveying accent and dialect without actually having to phonetically misspell words.

Make sure you know the accent: If you get an accent wrong, then many people will notice and be bothered by it. For example:

Now, I applaud Walter Koenig and Anton Yelchin as actors. But every time that I have to listen to Ensign Chekov speak, I get irritated. Why? “Nuclear wessels.” “Wictor wictor two.” The problem with these phrases is that they don’t represent a Russian accent—in fact, they represent the exact opposite of a Russian accent. Russians don’t have trouble with the sound “V”; their language is packed full of Vs. However, their language does not have a “W” sound. Consequently, they often say “V” instead of “W”: "I'm on my vay," for instance. The makers of Star Trek got the accent backwards, making Chekov sound like he has a speech impediment. (Just on the Ws and Vs, though. The rest is pretty good, especially as portrayed by Yelchin.)

Why is this such a problem? Because I usually love Russian characters simply because they are Russian. Because of Chekov’s mixed-up accent, however, he irritates me. I am thrown out of the story by a character who should have been pulling me in. There are enormous amounts of people out there who understand any given accent or dialect you might choose. Find one of them and ask them to help you out with your character’s speech.

A personal pet peeve: I mentioned above how many Russians omit a and the when speaking in English. They do not omit the words my, your, his, her, our, or other possessive articles. They have those words in Russian, and they know how to use them. It’s really just a and the.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Overview: Constructing Proper Paragraphs

How do you decide where to break content into paragraphs? This is the most common problem that writers have regarding paragraph construction, whether they’re writing stories, essays, or anything else. Content appropriately divided into paragraphs will be orderly and easy to follow; content poorly divided into paragraphs can be meandering, confusing, jarring, and just all around difficult to read.

Fortunately, the process of organizing paragraphs is similar to the process of organizing anything else. Imagine, for instance, that you have been charged with opening a new library. You’ve been given piles and piles of books and a building full of shelves, and now you have to organize the books so that visitors will easily be able to find what they want. What would you do first?

You’d probably begin sorting the books, wouldn’t you? You’d divide fiction from non-fiction and sort out YA, middle-grade, and children’s books. You might further these sections into genres: fiction would be separated into mysteries, science fiction, fantasy, romance, and so on; non-fiction would be separated into travel, cooking, history, etc. The specificity of the categories would be determined by how many books you had in each—the more books in a category, the more likely you would need to divide the category into sub-categories for ease of access.

Once your books were sorted by genre, you could assign each category a section of your library and begin shelving them. But in what order would you shelve them? Almost certainly in alphabetical order by the last name of the primary author, right? It’s the order that will be easiest for people to understand, after all.

Libraries: you don't even have to open a book for lessons on how to write one.
No matter what you ever have to organize, this process will be essentially the same. If your closet is organized, it’s probably by clothing type (shoes, slacks, shirts, dresses, etc.) and sub-type (dress shoes, casual shoes, sports shoes, sandals), with each category organized within the closet by size or color. Are you a visual artist? I’ll bet you’ve got your supplies organized by type (paints, colored pencils, kopecs, etc.) and then color.

Organizing content is essentially the same. Your paragraphs are categories of content divided by subject matter and character, organized in a logical procession such as linear order of actions or an increasingly magnified focus.  Let’s look at an example from “The Chaplain’s Assistant” by Brad Torgerson (about which you can learn more here). I’ve numbered the paragraphs for easy reference.

1.     I was putting fresh oil into clay lamps at the altar when the mantis glided into my foyer. The creature stopped for a moment, his antennae dancing in the air, sensing the few parishioners who sat on my roughly-hewn stone pews. I hadn’t seen a mantis in a long time—the aliens didn’t bother with humans much, now that we were shut safely behind their Wall. Like all the rest of his kind, this mantis’s lower thorax was submerged into the biomechanical “saddle” of his floating mobility disc. Only, this one’s disc didn’t appear to have any apertures for weapons—a true rarity on Purgatory.
2.     Every human head in the building turned towards the visitor, each set of human eyes smoldering with a familiar, tired hate.
3.     “I would speak to the Holy Man,” said the mantis through the speaker box on its disc. Its fearsome, segmented beak had not moved. The disc and all the machines within it were controlled directly by the alien’s brain.
4.     When nobody got up to leave, the mantis began floating up my chapel’s central aisle, the mantis’s disc making a gentle humming sound. “Alone,” said the visitor, his vocoded voice approximating a commanding human tone.
5.     Heads and eyes turned to me. I looked at the mantis, considered my options, then bowed to my flock, who reluctantly began to leave—each worshipper collecting handfuls of beads, crosses, stars, serviceman’s bibles, and various other religious items. They exited without saying a word. What else could they do? The mantes ruled Purgatory as surely as Lucifer ruled Hell.

Each paragraph is divided based on the content it contains. Paragraph one focuses on appearance—primarily the appearance of the mantis, but the author uses this paragraph to supply a bit of description of the chapel and a bit about the history of the setting. Paragraph two moves from description to action, specifically the actions of the congregation. Paragraphs three and four focus on the mantis again—three on its description and four on its actions. Paragraph five focuses on the actions of the protagonist and then the actions that the congregation takes in response.

Now, Mr. Torgerson might not have organized his paragraphs in the same way that you or I would have. For instance, paragraphs three and four could have been combined into one paragraph if he had felt like it, since they both focus on the mantis. Conversely, paragraph five could easily be split into two paragraphs—one covering the actions of the protagonist and one covering the actions of the congregation. There will almost always be several ways to organize the same content.

The specifics of your content organization are generally up to you—just like you can decide whether or not you want your books organized by author or by size and color, you can decide how you want your content to be arranged. What’s important is that the content be divided and organized logically.

There are, however, a few rules and common mistakes regarding paragraphs, which we will cover in future posts.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Perspective Errors: Over-Writing Action

Several types of perspective place you inside the head of the protagonist: third-person limited perspective and first-person present-tense perspective both embrace the concept that you are being shown the story in the moment that it happens through the lens of the perspective character. Third-person omniscient and first-person past-tense perspective also sometimes relay the narrative in this manner—through the eyes of a character as it is happening.

We’ve discussed before the importance of describing scenes, action, and other characters in a way that is appropriate for the perspective from which you’re writing. For example, an illiterate thug who grew up on the streets probably wouldn’t describe his perceptive friend as “perspicacious,” even in his own head. He might not even use the word “perceptive,” for that matter. So if you’re in the thug’s head, you shouldn’t describe his friend that way. It doesn’t matter if you, the author, would describe someone as perspicacious; you’re trying to place your audience in the mind of the perspective character, and using out-of-place language breaks the illusion.

Now, the way you describe action and the world of your story should also be influenced by any temporary conditions that your perspective character is under. A blindfolded character could not describe her surroundings visually, and so she would have to focus more on sounds, smells, and other senses that she normally would. A character who has taken a blow to the head might be dizzy or have trouble thinking clearly, and the language you use while they are in that state should reflect that.

One such state that frequently arises but often does not affect the prose of new writers is action. A character in a high-adrenaline situation, where they are perhaps fighting for their life, should not usually perceive their surroundings and their actions in the same way that they would in a calmer situation. Here’s a few things to look out for when writing actions scenes from the perspective of your character:

Match your description to your time

     Jenna moved forward slowly, careful to place her feet gently to avoid making any sound. Between each step, she peered through the trees, checking the darkness between the trees for the source of the noises she had heard. She held her rifle ready—the noises couldn’t have been made by anything smaller than a person.
     A black shadow suddenly loomed above the foliage ahead of her. The moment she noticed it, the creature—an enormous, scarred black Jinduan bear—charged with a deafening roar. Behind it, three small cubs growled, watching Jenna curiously.
White oak branches cracked and shattered out of the bear’s path, and Jenna only caught a glimpse of gleaming yellow irises and massive white canines before she was knocked to the ground by a heavy paw with muddy, five-inch claws. She attempted to raise her rifle, but there wasn’t enough room.

Most action happens quickly. In this example, the bear charged so quickly that Jenna was unable to shoot it, even though she explicitly had her rifle ready. And yet, in that time, she was able to discern what type of bear this was, that it was scarred, how many cubs the creature had, what they were doing, and what type of branches the bear was charging through. Doesn’t that seem a little unrealistic? Even if Jenna might have been vaguely, peripherally aware of these details, they probably wouldn’t have been occupying her attention in the moment that the angry bear was charging her!  Limit your description to fit the focus and observational capabilities of your character in the moment that events are happening.

In action, simple words can trump more complicated or specific words

I’ve posted several times about the need to use more specific, evocative words in description. In action, however, this rule doesn’t always apply. When adrenaline is pumping and action is happening quicker than rational thought, your prose can reflect your character’s inability to think quickly enough to keep up with the action.

For example, in our example above—if an enormous bear was charging you and you caught a brief glimpse of its face just before it attempted to ruthlessly, messily kill you, do you think your mind would be going, “Hmm, look at those gleaming yellow irises and massive white canines. Oh, and what heavy paws with muddy claws. Why, I do believe that those claws are approximately five inches long. My, my.” Of course you wouldn’t be thinking that! Unless you are the most hardened, constantly-in-peril protagonist in all of history, you would probably be thinking, “TEETH!! SCARY EYES!! HOLY @#!% THOSE @!&#ING CLAWS ARE HUGE!! I’M GOING TO DIE!!!

Now, you don’t need to reduce your narrative to nigh-incoherent screaming, and I certainly hope that you would avoid such horrible over-use of capital letters. But you should probably try to find a good middle ground. If your normally-well-spoken protagonist suddenly drops all of her eloquence in the middle of an action scene, it could be a useful and effective way to convey unthinking fear or urgency. Even if your character keeps their head, they should probably be too busy fighting for survival to consider the specifics of every detail.

Mordu, did you know that one of your incisors is broken? Oh, sorry, we're busy, aren't we? This probably isn't the best time.

Shorter sentences are preferable to longer sentences

This is an oft-repeated bit of advice for action scenes, but it is oft-repeated because it is good advice. Short sentences serve the same purpose as simple words—they convey that events are happening quickly, that the character doesn’t have time to think, that her mental state has been reduced to a more basic, primal, survival instinct.

Now, your action scenes shouldn’t consist of nothing but sentence fragments—in fact, many of your sentences may still turn out pretty long. But you should avoid more complicated sentences. If you’re busting out semicolons, colons, or too many em dashes, you’re probably decreasing the tension of your action scene. Your character is having to react too quickly for them to think much, and you want your readers to feel that. But if they have to slow down to decipher or consider complicated sentence construction, that won’t happen.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Overview: Tone and Voice

Tone and voice are two different aspects of writing that are often confused.

Voice is a largely unconscious element in writing. It is the words you choose over others, the manner in which you build phrases—everything which makes your words identifiable as yours. It is something that will evolve over time as you write more and read new authors and genres.

A good example of authorial voice can be found in the works of Joss Whedon. Whedon has a certain style of writing dialog that carries over from story to story. Next time you have a few hours free, watch an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, an episode of Firefly, and then part or all of The Avengers. While the style (and tone) of each piece varies, you can still feel a similar voice in the snappy back-and-forth dialog of each one.

Because voice is largely unconscious, it’s not generally something that new writers need to focus on; it’s something that develops on its own as you progress.

(Note that we're speaking here about your voice as an author. Your characters can and should have voices of their own, which is a topic that we discuss in this post)

Tone, on the other hand, is an aspect of writing which is often approached unconsciously but which should always be given conscious attention. Tone in writing is much like tone in speaking—someone might speak in a sarcastic tone, a serious tone, or a silly tone. It is how something is said, as opposed to what is said. Some stories have a humorous tone; others have a serious and straightforward tone. Just like you have control of the tone you use when you speak, you have control of the tone you use when you write.

Consider the tone of this excerpt from Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory MacGuire

     Hobbling home under a mackerel sky, I came upon a group of children. They were tossing their toys in the air, by turns telling a story and acting it too. A play about a pretty girl who was scorned by her two stepsisters. In distress, the child disguised herself to go to a ball. There, the great turnabout: She met a prince who adored her and romanced her. Her happiness eclipsed the plight of her stepsisters, whose ugliness was the cause of high merriment.
     I listened without being observed, for the aged are often invisible to the young.
     I thought: How like some ancient story this all sounds. Have these children overheard their grandparents revisiting some dusty gossip about me and my kin, and are the little ones turning it into a household tale of magic? Full of fanciful touches: glass slippers, a fairy godmother? Or are the children dressing themselves in some older gospel, which my family saga resembles only by accident?

The tone here is serious, pensive, and somewhat bitter, no? Now compare the tone of that example with the tone of this excerpt from Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal:

     They say that the prospect of being hanged in the morning concentrates a man's mind wonderfully; unfortunately, what the mind inevitably concentrates on is that, in the morning, it will be in a body that is going to be hanged.
     The man going to be hanged had been named Moist von Lipwig by doting if unwise parents, but he was not going to embarrass the name, insofar as that was still possible, by being hung under it. To the world in general, and particularly on that bit of it known as the death warrant, he was Alfred Spangler.
     And he took a more positive approach to the situation and had concentrated his mind on the prospect of not being hanged in the morning, and, most particularly, on the prospect of removing all the crumbling mortar from around a stone in his cell wall with a spoon. So far the work had taken him five weeks and reduced the spoon to something like a nail file. Fortunately, no one ever came to change the bedding here, or else they would have discovered the world's heaviest mattress.

While this second example focuses on a man in very serious circumstances, its tone is anything but serious. The tone here is clever and lighthearted, decidedly humorous. It could not be more different from the first example.

It is important for writers to be aware of what tone they are using in their stories. A tone that doesn’t fit the narrative or that is inconsistent, switching back and forth from one tone to another, can easily ruin an otherwise-solid story. We’ll delve more into tone problems in future posts.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Phrases to Avoid: "Walked Leisurely"

I see the phrase “walked leisurely” with surprising frequency. It falls under more than one category of poor word choice: it uses an unnecessary adverb and uses two words where one would do.  Instead of “walked leisurely,” any of these words would work better:

     Stroll: to walk in a leisurely or idle manner.
     Amble: to walk slowly in a free and relaxed way (generally carries a more aimless and leisurely connotation than stroll).
     Saunter: to walk along in a slow and relaxed manner (implies a cockier attitude than stroll or amble).
     Meander: to walk slowly without a specific goal, purpose, or direction.
     Ramble: to move aimlessly from place to place or to explore idly (usually indicates a more widespread area of movement than meander—for instance, you might meander around a store or maybe a town, but ramble around a country).

This seems to be a common phenomenon with verbs of motion—rather than finding one word that fits a character’s movement best, writers use a common verb with an adverb. Here’s some other examples that I’ve seen:

     “Ran hard”—usually better as sprinted
     “Jumped up and down repeatedly”—bounced or hopped.
     “Quickly moved out of the way”—dodged, evaded, or sidestepped.

Friday, December 5, 2014

How Not to Write a Cover Letter, Part Three

We’ve previously gone over two bits of advice regarding the writing of cover letters (be brief and be professional). Today we come to the final—and possibly the most important—piece of advice.

Be Humble

Almost every artist in existence possesses a bizarre mix of crippling insecurity and towering arrogance. We pass from periods of sweeping confidence where we’re positive that our current projects are amazing and groundbreaking to periods of horrible fear where we’re completely convinced that those same projects are pathetic, derivative, and completely unlikeable. Back and forth, back and forth, from the child in need of constant reassurance to the prima donna.

It’s not a bad thing. Periods of insecurity cause us to second-guess our assumptions, to look at our work with a close eye and chip away every imperfection we can find. They improve our art. On the other hand, we would probably never submit our work anywhere, never let it into the public eye, without that helpful, forward-pushing arrogance. But just make sure that the prima donna isn’t in charge when you’re writing your cover letter. 

There are few editorial turn-offs stronger than an arrogant cover letter. Every editor and agent has had the experience of working with an author who doesn’t want to accept any editorial input to their story, who already thinks that their story is perfect and grows angry when anyone has the gall to suggest otherwise. It is not pleasant to work with these people. If your cover letter gives off strong signs that you might be that type of author, editors and agents will drop that manuscript like it was poison and back away slowly.

Here’s a pair of harsh truths that none of us should ever forget: when it comes to publishing, we are not special and no one needs us. Every professional magazine, book publisher, and agent out there receives hundreds to thousands to tens of thousands of submissions and queries every year. Of those, they choose a mere fraction—probably one percent or less—to move forward with.

What this all means is that there are mountains of good submissions that get rejected every year. Submissions that are just as good as yours or better—don’t try to fool yourself that your work is some sort of godsend. I have personally rejected great stories in favor of slightly weaker stories, simply because the author of the better story seemed like they would be a nightmare to work with. A weaker story can always be made stronger, as long as the author is willing to work with the editing staff.

Don’t be that author! I don’t say all of this to demoralize—your work is probably pretty good, and if you persist and always continue to improve, you’ll probably make it to the top of that mountain someday. But don’t let your pride knock you back down when you get there.

Here are some specific things to avoid in your cover letter:

Don’t talk about how amazing your story is: It’s not your job to tell an editor or agent that your work is good—they’ll decide that for themselves. If you talk up your story so arrogantly and then it turns out not to be good, you’ll just look like an idiot. And the editor will probably remember that when you submit again.

Don’t complain about past rejections: Perhaps this editor has rejected something that you wrote, something that you believe is excellent and was not given a fair shot. Too bad. Don’t mention it in your cover letter (or anywhere else). Everyone gets rejected. No editor or agent is going to change their mind because you explained to them why they were wrong, especially if you’re insulting about it. Which is our next point:

Don’t insult the editor, the agent, or their staff: This should be a no-brainer, but you’d be amazed how often this happens. Usually it’s in regards to old submissions—a passive-aggressive statement like, “It’s all right that you rejected my last submission. I’ll just have to find someone who can understand it.” Other times it will be not-so-subtle digs at the stories that were chosen over theirs, rude comments about the publication or company, or even aspersions on the personal character of the editor or agent. Protip: no one is subtle. You’re not going to be able to hide insults—someone will always pick up on it. Just don’t put it in!

Don’t try to “sweeten the deal”: This is not a sales pitch. Don’t try to convince the editor or agent that your story is going to bring in tons of new readers (it probably won’t). Don’t tell them how well it will sell (they probably know better than you). Don’t tell them that God instructed you to write this book and will bless them if they publish you (not gonna help). There is only one thing that you can write that will convince them to publish you: a good story.

Now, you might be tempted to point out to me that many authors are quite arrogant, and they’re doing just fine. Yes, it happens. But most of them became arrogant because of their success, not before. Prime donne are tolerated because they have clear talent and selling power. If your talents are primarily of the as-yet-unrecognized variety, then no one will have reason to tolerate you if you act like a prima donna. And even successful authors can be dethroned by their arrogance. 

On the other hand, you may have been insulted by an editor that you feel was arrogant. Yeah, it happens. Sorry. Too bad. Don’t try to get revenge or give them comeuppance. It won’t work. Just move on.

Remember—your work is not one-in-a-million, it is one of a million. The competition to get published is already difficult enough without sabotaging yourself. Be humble, be polite, and you’ll do well.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

How Not to Write a Cover Letter, Part Two

If you’ve followed my last bit of advice for writing cover letters (be brief), then you’re probably well on your way to the second bit of advice:

Be Professional

The word professional is used in several ways—today, I’m using it in the “having a dignified, business-like bearing” sense. You may have seen many authors who like to have fun and joke around; and one of the reasons that you want to be a writer might be the prospect of having a profession that often feels more like play than work. But now is not the time for that.

Behind the scenes, most of your favorite authors are probably very professional. The ones who joke around with their editors and agents do so because they have an established working relationship or friendship with those people; they probably weren’t joking around with them when they began their careers. You don’t need to try to be funny or clever in your cover letter, you don’t need to put the editor at ease. Most agents and editors will be far more impressed by quiet professionalism than by bombastic humor or silliness.

Format your cover letter and manuscript professionally: We’ll discuss common manuscript formats another day (probably next week), but for now just remember that your letter should look business-like. Don’t use strange fonts; you don’t (usually) have to use Times New Roman or Courier, but you’ll never go wrong with them. Garamond, Cambria, and Georgia are some other good, professional, easily-readable fonts. Keep your text black and your font size and spacing normal (around size 11 or 12; 1.15 spacing for your cover letter and 2.0 spacing for your manuscript).

Follow submissions guidelines: Every editor and agent has slightly different preferences, and they’ll always make it clear what those preferences are. Find their submissions instructions (usually listed under “submissions” or “writers’ guidelines” on their website) and follow them with exactness. These guidelines will include instructions on where to send submissions, how to address them, how to format them, how many can be sent at once, and how long you should wait before sending them an inquiry about your manuscript. Editors and agents will always notice when you haven’t followed instructions, and it will never reflect well on you.

Don’t use gimmicks: In regards to manuscript submissions, a “gimmick” is any unusual little trick that new authors use in an attempt to “get noticed.” I have heard of (and received) many of these, including: formatting manuscripts in unusual fonts and colors; printing manuscripts on any color of paper but white; inserting messages to the editor into the body of your story; turning pages upside down; delivering manuscripts in person (possibly while dressed in cosplay); hand-writing cover letters or manuscripts (possibly with crayon); recording audio cover letters; attaching formal headshots of yourself; inserting illustrations into the story; and many, many more. These sort of gimmicks will stand out to editors and agents, but not in a good way.

Don’t use emoticons: Emoticons are fine for text messages, social media, and e-mails to someone you know well; but they have no place in a cover letter. Emoticons are the very antithesis of professional—social, silly, and overly familiar. Don’t use them.

A professionally-formatted cover letter and manuscript might seem boring to you, but that is good. Your goal here is not “to stand out from the crowd” or to “catch attention.” Your goal is to give an impression of competence, patience, and professionalism. Remember—the only thing that should stand out about your submission is the impressive quality of your story.

Part three of this series (be humble) is here.

Monday, December 1, 2014

How Not to Write a Cover Letter, Part One

NaNoWriMo is over, which means that there are multitudes of writers out there with finished manuscripts that they’re itching to send out to potential publishers. With that in mind, I’m going to switch gears for a little bit here on the Story Polisher. The primary purpose of this blog is to highlight the many mistakes that novice (and not-so-novice) writers make, which collectively can render a manuscript unpublishable. Usually, I focus on errors in prose, because I believe that prose is the most important aspect of writing and simultaneously the most difficult to improve.

But for the next few weeks, I’m going to give advice on getting a manuscript ready for submission; on editing your story, formatting the manuscript, and writing a cover letter. After exhausting themselves to get a story completed, many writers just don’t have the energy or attention span to give these non-story elements of the trade sufficient effort. Conversely, many other writers give these elements far too much attention and end up over-doing things.

A few years ago, I wrote an editorial for Leading Edge Magazine titled How Not to Write a Cover Letter, in which I identified three major mistakes that novice writers make in their cover letters. The first, which we’ll go over today, is making a cover letter too long.

Keep it Brief

First, a definition: a cover letter is a brief note of introduction which the author attaches to their submission. The key word there is brief. No cover letter should ever be more than one page long—and note that this is a maximum limit, not a suggested length. Generally, your cover letter shouldn’t be longer than a paragraph or two.

The purpose of your cover letter is not to convince the editor to read your story. If you submitted the story, they will read it (or at least some of it). Your cover letter is just there to give them some basic information that can’t be conveyed through the story:

     Your name
     The title of your story
     The length of your story
     (Maybe) A (very) brief description of your story
     A list of your previous (professional or semi-professional) publishing credits
     (Maybe) A brief description of your education, training, or life experiences (. . . wait for it . . .) which relate to the story that you’ve submitted.

That’s it.

Many new writers tend to balk at how short their cover letter ends up being when they pare it down to these few things, especially if they don’t have any previous publishing credits to list. They feel like they need to pad it out somehow, give it some “substance.” Other writers seem to think that the cover letter is a chance to “wow” publishers, that they need to show off what an excellent writer they are right from the start. They pen long letters packed with fluff that’s supposed to show off their skills. In reality, it does just the opposite.

Here’s the thing: editors spend all day reading. Their desks or e-mail inboxes tend to be piled high with manuscripts of various lengths. The last thing they need is extra reading. If your cover letter seems extremely short to you, then that’s great! That is exactly what they want to see.
Pictured: An editor with a light workload.
On the other hand, if an editor pulls up a new submission only to find a wall of text between them and the story proper, that isn’t good. At the very least, they’ll be a little irritated. They would probably still read the story, but they definitely won’t waste their time on that big huge letter.

Here are some things I’ve seen in so very many cover letters which, without question, should not be in a cover letter:

Your personal bio: This is a manuscript submission, not a dating ad. I’m sure you’re a wonderful person, but that doesn’t matter. No editor cares who you are, where you’re from, or what your life is like. They don’t care if you like piƱa coladas, or what wacky antics your family gets up to, or where you went to school, or what you studied. You do not matter. All that matters is your story—if it’s good enough, they’ll publish it. If it’s not good enough, they won’t. Nothing you write about yourself can change that.

Stories about your story: Don’t share the entertaining or humorous story of where you got the idea for this story, or how it evolved over time. Don’t tell them you wrote if for NaNoWriMo or that you typed it all in one feverish night of inspiration. Behind-the-scenes features aren’t going to make your story more interesting.

Recommendations: Don’t tell the editor how so many of your friends or family enjoyed the story. It doesn’t matter if your professor thought it was magnificent or if your writing group thought this was the one that would get published. The only possible exception to this rule is if a respected, well-known author or other editor read and enjoyed the story and explicitly recommended that you send the story to this editor. If the author didn’t give you permission, then don’t try to name-drop them into your cover letter.

Non-professional publication credits: Much as I love this here blog of mine, I would not mention it in a cover letter (unless, perhaps, I were trying to publish a book on writing prose). Anyone can write a blog, so it isn’t much of an accomplishment to have done so. Self-published stories do not belong on your cover letter, whether they were posted on a blog or are for sale on Amazon. Being published by an amateur college publication doesn’t count, unless they’re at least semi-professional (i.e. they pay their authors at least some money). The exception to this rule is audience: if your blog is widely popular (several hundred hits a day at least) or you’ve sold thousands (note the plural) of copies of your self-published story, then that is worthy of note.

A long story synopsis: The shorter your story, the shorter the synopsis should be. A novel may be worth a full paragraph (check the submission guidelines, as some publishers specifically ask for one to three), while a short story shouldn’t get more than a sentence. Often, with a short story, you don’t need any description of the story at all.

Any of your life experiences that don’t strongly relate to the story: If your story is set in the heart of the Congo and you have had personal experience living in the Congo, then that is worth mentioning. If you lived in the Congo but that only faintly influences the story, then don’t bring it up. If you’re a practicing lawyer who has written a legal thriller, that’s worth mentioning. If there’s only one brief courtroom scene in the story, then that’s not very important.

You shouldn’t generally mention that you attended a writing workshop or took a class taught by a famous author unless the story that you’re submitting is one that you wrote in the workshop or class in question. Again, this is just name-dropping unless it’s actually pertinent to the story.

Mentions of other stories you’ve submitted: You might thank them for the time they gave to another story you submitted, but don’t say any more than that. (I’ll write more on this later.)

Here’s a sample of a cover letter I might write to an editor:

1st December, 2014

(Publisher/Publication Name)
(Publisher’s Listed Address)

Hello (Editor),

     Thank you for taking the time to review my (short story/novel), Most Excellent Story Name. It is about (insert appropriate-length pitch here), and is approximately (number) words long. I wrote it based on my experiences in (related life experience).

     (If applicable) Here are my past publishing credits:
     Story in Issue 21 of Magazine

     Thank you again for your time,

     Christopher Baxter

Remember: editors are busy. If you waste too much of their time with your cover letter, then they might not feel like giving any more of their time to your story. Brief is best.

Part two of this series (be professional) is here and part three (be humble) is here.