Friday, February 27, 2015

Pronoun Confusion, Part Two

Earlier this week, we discussed pronouns and unclear antecedents. Today I’d like to show you another way that pronouns can cause trouble, a problem I like to call the “antecedent switch.”

Now, quick review—a pronoun is a word that stands in for a noun or noun phrase, such as he, she, they, or I. An antecedent is the noun or noun phrase that the pronoun replaces:

     Joseph knew all the answers to the test because he had studied.
(Antecedent)                                                      (Pronoun)

Pronouns are simple enough to use when you only have one character in a scene to whom each of them can apply. For instance, if your scene features one man and one woman and no other characters, then you’ll always know who the pronoun he refers to and who the pronoun she refers to. But if your scene features two women and two men, then it will suddenly become a little trickier to keep track of who is he and who is she.

You should probably hold off on your novelization of 12 Angry Men until you're absolutely certain that you've mastered your clear pronoun usage.

A good rule of thumb is that a pronoun will generally refer back to the last applicable antecedent. For example:

     Sophia hated the color green because she had spent years trying to get grass stains out clothing. Mary, on the other hand, loved the color green because she loved the outdoors.

In the first sentence, the pronoun she refers to Sophia. In the next sentence, however, the exact same pronoun refers to Mary instead. This is acceptable prose because Mary was the most recent possible antecedent in the second sentence.

There is a very strong exception to this rule, however: do not switch antecedents in the middle of the sentence. For example:

     Sophia finished reading. She handed the book to Mary so that she could read the passage too.

At the beginning of the second sentence, she referred to Sophia. Later in the same sentence, it referred to Mary. This is a no-no. Do not use the same pronoun twice (or more) in one sentence to refer to two (or more) different antecedents. If you want to use your pronoun in place of a new antecedent, then you should either begin a new sentence or re-word your original passage to remove one of the pronouns.

     Sophia finished reading and handed the book to Mary so that she could read the passage too.

Bam. No antecedent switch in the middle of the sentence; there is only one pronoun, and it is clear what its antecedent is.

So that’s a solid rule to help you keep your pronoun usage clear. Plus, while writing this post I came up with about three other pronoun problems that I’ll want to mention, so look out for plenty more on this topic in the future.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Calm Down About the First Line of Your Story

You only get one chance to make a first impression. This is true in nearly every situation, from work to parties to first dates. It is also true of stories.

I’ve heard a lot of talk about the first lines of stories—how important they are, how they need to hook the reader, how they should effectively introduce the story, establish a unique voice, be surprising, etcetera, etcetera. And all of that is true. But I’ve also met so very many new writers who’ve gotten a little too consternated trying to write the “perfect” first line. I find that, more and more often, the only advice regarding first lines that I want to give to people is this: calm down.

First lines are like titles: if done well, they can hook the reader’s interest from the get go. Sometimes they just pop immediately to mind, and other times the writer really has to dig and work to find a good one. Sometimes writers knock it out of the park; more often, they simply manage something adequate. But even if first lines and titles are only average, most readers and editors will continue to give you their attention for at least a little while longer.

So yes, first lines are important; but they’re not worth the headache that many writers devote to them. There are only a few basic rules that I would suggest that you follow when writing the first lines of your stories:

Make sure that they are free of errors. Almost no editor or reader will set down your story simply because the first line didn’t “grab” them. But if you have grammar or punctuation errors in the very first sentence of your story, that will make them wary.

Don’t let them run on. As I’ve mentioned before, long sentences are both more difficult to properly construct and more difficult for your readers to follow. Asking your readers to swallow a massive amount of information at the very, very beginning of your story is a bit of a tall order. Try to give them the new information and introductions a little bit at a time.

Make sure they are on topic. Sometimes, in their quests to create engaging first lines, writers wander a little too far from their story. They begin on a largely unrelated topic and then wander from there to the story. The problem is, if that first line is so very engaging, your readers will only feel cheated when they find out that it has nothing to do with the actual story. Not a good way to gain fans.

That’s it.

I’m not saying that you should ignore all the other “first lines” advice out there. If you can craft a pertinent first line that is funny, intriguing, or fascinating, that’s great! That’s desirable and impressive; good for you. But here’s the thing: what is funny, intriguing, or fascinating to one person won’t be that impressive to many others. I can’t tell you how often I’ve had other people show me “amazing” first lines that I just wasn’t that impressed with. I’ve been completely floored by amazing first lines that other people just shrugged at with a “meh.” Almost no first lines will be amazing to everyone or even most everyone, so don’t break your brain trying too hard to amaze and wow. As long as you follow the tips above and don’t write anything that will actively repulse readers, you’ll be fine.

Now, this may or may not be a helpful illustration, but I found it fun. I’ve spent quite a bit of time browsing through the first lines of books and short stories, especially ones from very successful books. I’d like to share a few here. I think that, like me, you’ll see that many first lines are impressive, while others are simply quietly competent. Some hit you with a plot hook, while others simply begin a slow process of easing you into a long story.

In making this list, I have avoided all of the “classic” first lines that these lists usually cover. I love the first line of Pride and Prejudice and am less-than-wowed by the famous first line of Moby Dick. But this list is more focused on the first lines of modern stories that have come out in the last few decades. How are today’s writers—your contemporaries—beginning their books?

     Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling)

     Robert Langdon awoke slowly. (The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown)

     When he woke in the woods in the dark and cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. (The Road by Cormac McCarthy)

     “We should start back,” Gared urged as the woods began to grow dark around them. (A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin)

     The trial was irretrievably over; everything that could be said had been said, but he had never doubted that he would lose. (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson)

     When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. (The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins)

     My suffering left me sad and gloomy. (Life of Pi by Yann Martel)

     I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975. (The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini)

     CLARE: It's hard being left behind. (The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger)

     My mother drove me to the airport with the windows rolled down. (Twilight by Stephenie Meyer)

     Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death. (The Fault in Our Stars by John Green)

     The palace still shook occasionally as the earth rumbled in memory, groaned as if it would deny what had happened. (The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan)

     Look, I didn’t want to be a half-blood. (The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan)

     When I think of my wife I always think of her head. (Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn)

     At night I would lie in bed and watch the show, how bees squeezed through the cracks of my bedroom wall and flew circles around the room, making that propeller sound, a high-pitched zzzzzz that hummed along my skin. (The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd)

     It was night again. (The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss)

     There is one mirror in my house. (Divergent by Veronica Roth)

     I have never been what you’d call a crying man. (11/22/63 by Stephen King)

     Mariam was five years old the first time she heard the word harami. (A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini)

     Kalak rounded a rocky stone ridge and stumbled to a stop before the body of a dying thunderclast. (The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson)

     Wind howled through the night, carrying a scent that would change the world. (Eragon by Christopher Paolini)

     There is no lake at Camp Green Lake. (Holes by Louis Sachar)     

See what I mean? I’m sure some of those really grabbed you; others not so much. And I’ll bet the ones that impressed you aren’t all the same as the ones that impressed me. But all of those books were widely-read to an extreme degree. So don’t fret too much about your first lines; they won’t usually make or break your story.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Pronoun Confusion, Part One

Let’s talk about pronouns; specifically, personal and possessive pronouns.

It’s nearly impossible to write a story without them. These are words that substitute for names or other proper nouns and for their possessive forms, respectively.

Personal pronouns. The person you’re talking about is one of these:

     Christopher, writers, readers, Korey, Belinda, the car, the Inklings

But the word you’re using is one of these:

     I, we, you, he, she, it, they

And here’s an example of a personal pronoun in use:

    Belinda loves to dance even though she isn’t very graceful.

Possessive pronouns. You’re talking about an object that could be described with one of these words:

     Christopher’s, writers’, the readers’, Korey’s, Belinda’s, the car’s, the Inklings’

But the word you’re using instead is one of these:

     My, our, your, his, her, its, their

And here’s an example of a personal pronoun in use:

     Korey has to pick up his sister from school today.

You can see how prose would get very tiring without any pronouns, right? It would get cluttered with proper names and placeholders and the like. Pronouns make language prettier. But they are also a cause of common mistakes. For example:

     Dan needed to talk to Hector before he went to the movie.

We know that he is a personal pronoun that stands in for someone’s name, but to whom does it refer in the above sentence? Does Dan need to talk to Hector before Dan goes to a movie, or does Dan need to talk to Hector before Hector goes to the movie?

In many situations like this, it’s possible to figure out the meaning from context, from the things that were said in the sentences before and after this one. That’s not good enough—you don’t want your readers to have to waste time on figuring out what you’re saying when they should be busy trying to figure out what’s going to happen next.

Keep an eye out for sentences like that, where it is unclear to whom the pronoun refers (it's called an unclear antecedent, by the way). When you come across one, rewrite it so that the confusion is removed. Our example sentence above could be easily fixed:

     Dan wanted to get to the movie, but he needed to talk to Hector first.

     Hector was headed to the movies, but Dan needed to talk to him first.

See? Easy fix. Sometimes it won’t be so easy, but it will always be possible. You’re a writer—you have complete control over the story and the prose, so use it well.

There are other ways for personal and possessive pronouns to go wrong, so stay tuned for more tips on this in future posts.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Saying Things Twice

A common signifier of not-yet-professional writing is an author who consistently says things twice. This doesn’t mean that they repeat themselves verbatim; it means that they say something, and then they re-state it in a different manner. For example:

     Walking fast, she hurried to the door.

That’s rather redundant, isn’t it? We’re told that she’s “walking fast,” and then we’re told that she “hurried.” Those are basically the same thing. This sentence should just be shortened to “She hurried to the door.”

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know why redundancy isn’t a good trait for your writing to have. If you don’t know, here’s a link to the many posts that touch on redundancy and its negative effect on writing. To put it shortly: redundancy wastes your readers’ time and insults their intelligence.

This is a real line from an actual manuscript.

Here’s some more examples:

     “Turn in your badge and gun now,” I ordered, holding out my hand.
     Detective Mullens cursed under his breath. Reluctantly, he complied, handing me his badge and his gun.

See the repetition? First, we’re told that Mullens “complied.” Since we just read the order he was complying with, we know that this means that he handed over his badge and his gun. But then the writer goes ahead and tells us that’s what he did, anyway.

     “Okay, I’ll see you at noon tomorrow,” Julia said. She made a note of the meeting, writing it down in her planner.

Same situation—“made a note” and “wrote it down” mean the same thing. One of those phrases should be cut.

Now, you may remember the common writing advice “Show, don’t tell.” This novice writer’s habit of saying things twice often comes about because the author chooses to show and tell. Here’s an example that one of my teachers once pointed out in my own writing:

     For most people, the view from the lighthouse would have been very impressive. But Hero had seen far more than most people. He simply yawned and leaned against the railing.

First I told my readers that Hero had seen more than most people, and then I showed that through his actions. You are all smart enough to read between the lines if I simply show you:

     For most people, the view from the lighthouse would have been very impressive. Hero simply yawned and leaned against the railing.

Bam. Gone is the redundancy, leaving behind tighter, more efficient prose. All I needed to do was trust my readers to be smart enough to understand what I was showing them.

Another example:

     “Thank you for your help,” Jane said. She smiled, her expression happy.

Boooo. We all know that a smile is a happy expression, right? No need to re-state it.

Pictured: A Happy Expression

You all get the picture. Next time you’re editing, keep an eye out for any spots where you might have said something twice. When you find them, ruthlessly eliminate the redundancy.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Punctuation Problems: "While" and the Comma

A few months ago we discussed how a single comma can change the meaning of a sentence. But commas are more versatile than that; they can also change the meaning of specific words, simply by being placed nearby. For instance, the word while:

     We’ll go to the theatre while you watch the baby.

     I am a doctor of medicine, while you are simply a quack.

See that? In the first example, while meant “during the time that” and was not preceded by a comma. In the second example, it meant “whereas” and was preceded by a comma.

Now, it’s technically not the comma that changes the meaning of while. But that comma will pretty much always follow this pattern. If you’re using while to mean whereas, then it should be preceded by the comma; if you’re using it to mark a period of time, then there shouldn’t be a comma.

What I’m saying here is that editors don’t want to see this:

     He’s throwing a party, while his parents are out of town.

This happens all over the place, and it is incorrect. Resist the impulse to place a comma before a while that’s supposed to indicate a duration of time. Just don’t do it.

The problem with this error is that it still creates a grammatically valid sentence. A normal grammatical error just says something poorly, but at least it’s usually still what the writer meant to say. This error, on the other hand, completely changed the meaning of the sentence from this:

     He’s throwing a party during the period of time that his parents are out of town.

To this:

     He’s throwing a party; his parents, on the other hand, are out of town.

See the problem here? If you’re a writer, someone who makes a living (or wants to make a living) purely by the words you string together, then you need to know how to make those words say exactly what you intend them to. So remember:

Note: When while is being used to indicate a period of time, it is usually possible to switch the order of the sentence’s clauses like this:

     While his parents are out of town, he’s throwing a party.

In this case, you will need a comma between the two parts of the sentence, but not beside while.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Pitfalls of Multiple Viewpoints

Last time, we discussed some of the ways that including multiple perspective characters in your story can serve the needs of the narrative. Today, I'd like to highlight some of the difficulties and pitfalls that you should consider before you start breaking out new perspectives all over the place.

The audience can lose track of characters and plotlines

Generally speaking, the more perspective characters you have in a story, the more plotlines and side characters you will need to flesh out the narrative. This is a difficulty that can quickly spiral out of control. I recently read a manuscript which dropped fourteen viewpoint characters on me in the space of thirty chapters. That is a lot of viewpoints and characters to keep track of, especially when you only get an occasional chapter here and there with each character. I can tell you the names of about half of the viewpoint characters, the occupations of most of the others, and almost nothing about anyone else.

Now, if I really buckled down and focused, I could probably remember most of the names of the other perspective characters. I could painstakingly map out each plotline in my head to be sure that I understood where things were going. But the trouble is that I just don't care enough to do so. The more work it is to follow a story, the more entertaining that story will have to be to pull readers along; and most of them just can't live up to it.

The audience will almost certainly end up disliking certain plotlines or viewpoint characters

Juxtaposition invites comparison.

Go ahead. Just try not to notice any differences.

If you place two portraits side by side, viewers will automatically begin to compare them. If you write a re-telling of Sleeping Beauty, then readers will instinctively compare it to every other version of the story that they've experienced.

The same thing happens with multiple perspectives and plotlines in a story. If you jump from perspective to perspective, readers will begin to compare those perspectives and will almost always end up enjoying or disliking one more than the others. They will begin to resent having to leave their favorite plotline or character to spend time on one that they don't like as much or even actively dislike. In the manuscript I mentioned before, I encountered this problem. Of the fourteen viewpoints I'd been given, I was really engaged by only three or four of them. Perhaps eight or nine of the others felt merely adequate by comparison, and the remaining ones I actively dreaded returning to. If the amount of entertaining story is too severely overwhelmed by boring or unpleasant, many readers will simply set the book aside.

Lack of variety

Many viewpoint characters tend to be something of a blank slate, a "normal" person that the audience can relate to (or project themselves upon) in a sea of distinctive side characters. Harry Potter, for instance, can often come across this way. When compared to the intelligent and bossy Hermione, the sardonic and insecure Ron, the bombastic and friendly Hagrid, and so on, Harry is comparatively low-key. He is interesting mainly as a lens through whom we can view the world and as a vehicle to carry us through exciting adventures, but no so much for his unique or compelling personality. And this isn't a bad thing; a protagonist that your audience can easily relate to or project themselves upon can be a powerful tool.

However, if you have multiple perspective characters in a single story, it can be very easy for them all to fall into this same rut. If you have four viewpoint characters who all have this same, easy to relate to/project upon personality, the story will get boring very quickly. Characters need to interesting and distinct from one another, whether they're side characters or protagonists.

Character knowledge vs. audience knowledge

Unless your perspective characters are all getting together to share their experiences and knowledge every time you switch the viewpoint, you will almost certainly have some characters who know things that the others don't. Your readers and you the author, on the other hand, know everything that any of the characters have learned at any given point. I have read many stories where knowledge began to bleed from one character to another even though they had never had an opportunity to share information. You have to keep track of which character knows what and how they know it; don't just lazily let the audience's knowledge inform the characters.

This also includes keeping track of which characters are acquainted and which aren't. Just because your audience is already familiar with a character doesn't mean the other protagonists are.

Pacing Problems

Time is one of the most difficult problems of multiple-perspective stories. In the manuscript I mentioned earlier, one of my favorite plotlines was left with two characters in a rather dire situation. The narrative then followed five or so other characters through a variety of situations, including some plotlines that would have taken several days to play out. The narrative then returned to those two characters . . . mere moments after we'd last seen them. I was confused and irritated. If we were just going to come back to these characters in the same scene, the same minute where we'd last seen them, then why did we ever leave them? Days had passed for other characters while seconds had passed for these.

Even more difficult to write and to keep track of as a reader is concurrent action, when two plotlines are occurring at the same time. This can be very difficult to convey, which is why some of the best writers of multiple-perspective stories carefully craft the plot so that no concurrent action takes place. If you leave character A to spend five minutes with character B, then five or more minutes will have passed when you return to character A again.

There are two reasons why this is important. First, if readers get too confused, then they might get irritated with the story or simply set the book aside. Second, there are few things that feel as cheap and deceptive as leaving characters in a tricky situation only to have them get rescued by a character who logically should have been somewhere else. If you make too many mistakes with the time and pacing of your story, you run the risk of seeming dishonest and leaving your readers feeling cheated.

Now, none of this is to say that you shouldn't write multiple-perspective stories. Just keep in mind the difficulties before you start. Don't be afraid to set aside a more complex, multi-viewpointed story in favor of a simpler story with fewer viewpoints that is more within the realm of your skills. Then, once you've had some practice, come back to the more complicated story. Better to wait and do a good story justice than to botch it because you weren't ready.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Reasons To Use Multiple Perspectives In Your Story

We’ve discussed perspective quite thoroughly in previous posts—first-person, third-person limited, and third-person omniscient, as well as a host of perspective errors. But we haven’t much discussed stories with multiple perspective characters, where the narrative jumps from point person’s point-of-view to another’s and back again.

Multiple-perspective stories can be written with any type of perspective, but these days third-person limited is the most common for these types of stories. Third-person omniscient stories are uncommon these days in general because they are difficult to write and to read (though they are all, by definition, multiple-perspective stories). First-person stories, on the other hand, can often be confusing if there is more than one perspective because readers can easily lose track of which narrator is speaking, since all of the narrators simply refer to themselves as “I”.

The number of points-of-view in a multiple-perspective story can vary widely. On one extreme, you have the Harry Potter books, which feature only two or three chapters across seven books from perspectives other than Harry’s. On the other extreme, you have stories like George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, which follows dozens of different points-of-view and switches perspective with nearly every chapter.

There is nothing wrong with writing a story from multiple perspectives—if it’s good enough for Homer, Shakespeare, and Tolstoy, then it’s good enough for the rest of us. Keep in mind, however, that writing from multiple perspectives is much more difficult than writing from a single perspective. If you choose to undertake this sort of difficult task, make sure it’s a choice that serves your story. If your story needs multiple perspectives in order to cover all of the plot, then put in multiple perspectives. If you’re only doing it because George R. R. Martin did it, however, then that’s not a good reason.

Here are some reasons a story might need multiple perspectives:

One person can’t be there for the whole story

Take a story like The Empire Strikes Back. At the beginning, the rebels are driven and scattered from their hidden base on Hoth. Luke goes to Dagobah to train with Yoda; Han, Leia, and the others evade the Empire through a strangely-cluttered asteroid field and then flee to Cloud City. Plot happens, and they’re (mostly) reunited at the end.

If Luke were the only perspective character, the audience would miss Han and Leia falling in love, the dark intrigue of their arrival at Cloud City, their capture by Darth Vader, Han being frozen in carbonite, Lando’s change of heart, and Leia and the others’ escape from Cloud City. If Leia were the only perspective character, we would miss Luke’s plot-important training—from Yoda’s reluctance to train him, “Do or do not. There is no try,” Luke’s vision of Vader, lifting the X-wing from the swamp, Luke’s decision to disobey his trainer to go save his friends, all the way to the climactic duel between Luke and Vader and the famous reveal of Vader’s identity. If we were to follow only one perspective character, then we would miss half the plot—therefore, multiple perspectives are needed.

To avoid an overabundance of convenient coincidences (Chosen One Syndrome)

Almost every story from any place or time relies on a certain amount of coincidence. Characters just happen to be in the right place at the right time to overhear just the right conversation, or Luke just happens to crash on Dagobah within walking distance of Yoda’s house—those sorts of things. We all accept a certain amount of implausibility for the sake of story.
But single-perspective stories tend to necessitate more implausible coincidences than do multiple-perspective stories. Look at the Harry Potter novels—across seven books, how many times does Harry conveniently overhear an important conversation that he wasn’t supposed to? How many more do Ron and Hermione happen to hear and relate to him? The sheer amount of coincidence can get to be a little staggering. In a multiple-perspective novel, you can give the audience all of the important plot information that they need without having to get all of that information to a single person.

To avoid boredom (More Chosen One Syndrome)

When plotting a story, it is a good idea to follow the action—show whatever part of the story is most interesting and engaging, and skip over parts that are dull or repetitive. The problem that arises in a single-perspective character is that this means that your single protagonist has to be there for almost every plot-important event or conversation that ever happens. Everything! J.K. Rowling even had to invent the pensieve so that she could have Harry be present for plot-important events that happened before he was even born! (And it was an excellent way to handle this problem, in my opinion.) But not every story can whip out a pensieve when the main character needs to be present for something plot important. More often, they have to rely on yet more convenient coincidences and implausible situations.

When single-perspective stories try to handle this more realistically, the story tends to become less engaging. One of the most common complaints that I’ve heard about Mockingjay (book three of The Hunger Games) is that so much of the actual story happens “off-screen” while Katniss is doing little to nothing on-screen. It was realistic to have her suffering from a PTSD-esque problem; but planning a big, daring mission to finally go save Peeta and then not showing us when it happened? That was disappointing, to say the least.

Multiple-perspective stories can handily side-step this problem. If one character has to drive for three hours before they’ll get to where something interesting will happen, switch to a different character in a more interesting situation. More characters get to share more of the spotlight, and the story will usually be a bit more plausible for it.

To give greater understanding or increase tension

Have you ever read The Wheel of Time? There’s a character named Galad who is in and out of the story throughout the entire fourteen books, and almost everyone hated him. He was cold and strict, a man whose devotion to what he believed was right led him to throw in his lot with dangerous, unthinking zealots. Or at least, that’s what he was for ten books or so. Then, I think in the eleventh book, we were for the first time shown a scene from Galad’s point of view. For many people, it was a revelation. Once we could see things from his perspective, he became sympathetic and understandable. Once scene was enough to make him suddenly likeable for the rest of the series, even when we weren’t in his perspective.

Writing a scene from a character’s perspective is an excellent way to get the audience to understand and sympathize with the character, if that’s what you need. (Or, if they’re despicable enough, it’s a good way to get the audience to quickly dislike or fear the character.)

Multiple perspectives can also increase tension. Show us a scene from a side character’s point of view that reveals that they are a traitor with a plan to bring down the other characters. Bam. All of a sudden, the audience knows that something bad is coming that the main characters don’t. That’s dramatic irony, folks, and it’s a handy tool that is only available in multiple-perspective stories.

So there’s some handy reasons for using multiple points-of-view in a story. Next time, we’ll go over some of the difficulties and hazards to look out for when composing multiple-perspective narratives.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Formatting a Manuscript

Last time I mentioned that repeated formatting mistakes can quickly cause an editor to lose interest in a manuscript. But what exactly does a properly formatted manuscript look like?

The basics

     One-inch margins
     Times New Roman or Courier New font
     Twelve-point font size
     Double-spaced lines
     Left-aligned text
     Running header in the top right corner of the page: Your Last Name / Story Title / Page Number
     Indent first line of each paragraph (either with tab or page formatting)
     No line breaks between paragraphs

Formatting the beginning of your story

How you format the beginning of your story will depend on the type of story. For short stories, your first page should have your name, address, and email address in the top left corner (unlike the rest of the document, these lines should be single-spaced. Place an approximate word count (round to the nearest hundred words) in the top right corner.  The title of the story should be centered on a line somewhere between a third of the way and half way down the page. Do not bold, underline, italicize, or increase the font size of the title. Put a byline (by your name) one double-spaced line below the title. Begin the story one double-spaced line below that. Omit the running header (last name / story title / page number) from this page. The end result should look something like this:

For longer stories such as novels and novellas, you’ll want to begin your manuscript with a title page. A title page will have the title of the story centered on a line somewhere between a third of the way and half way down the page. (Again, do not bold, underline, italicize, or increase the font size of the title.) Place the byline one double-spaced line below the title. At the bottom of the page, insert your name, address, and e-mail address in the left corner and the approximate word count (rounded to the nearest five hundred words this time).  Omit the running header from the title page.

The first page of the story should have the number of the chapter (Prologue or Chapter 1 along with any actual title you might have given the chapter) centered on a line somewhere between a third of the way and half way down the page. Again, do not bold these, etcetera. Begin the story itself about four to six double-spaced lines below the title. Include the running header on this page, beginning with page one. The end result will look like this:

Other formatting elements

Limit the amount of all-caps words that you use—there might be situations where you need them (say, if you’re Terry Pratchett and someone is having a conversation with Death) but most of the time they distract from the story. The same goes for bold letters. Unless you’re writing non-fiction essays or articles with sub-headers (as I am right now), you probably don’t need it.

Never use bold or all-capital letters for emphasis. Use italics instead, as I just did. (Note: if you’re using the Courier New font, italics can be difficult to pick out. In that case, you might want to consider underlining text that would have been italicized. Never use underline for anything else. Never.)

To indicate a section break, use a single asterisk (*), three asterisks (*** or * * *), or a number sign (#) centered on its own line. Don’t put any extra line breaks above or below the symbol.

At the end of the story, you may center “The End” or “###” on its own line if you so wish. This can be especially helpful if your ending is more open-ended (i.e. vague, unresolved, or sudden) so that the editor can be sure that this was, in fact, the end of the story and they didn’t just lose or accidentally delete any pages.

A final note

Editors do tend to be a little forgiving when it comes to formatting, especially in electronic submissions. There’s just so many ways to format a manuscript, and no one quite agrees on what is best. Just try to make sure that your formatting is close to what I’ve described here, and you should be fine.

Howeveralways check the submission guidelines of the publication, editor, or agent to whom you are submitting. Sometimes they’ll have specific requirements listed. Always follow these requirements. If it was important enough for them to mention, they won’t be happy to see that you ignored their directions.

This is especially important when it comes to the type of document they require. Microsoft Word saves files as a .docx file these days, but many publishers prefer that submissions be saved as some other type of document, such as .doc, .txt, or .rtf. Make sure that you’ve submitted the proper document type.

For a great run-down on formatting a short story (most of which applies to longer manuscripts as well), check out William Shunn's guidelines here.

Monday, February 9, 2015

What Editors Are Looking For

As I briefly mentioned in my last post, I spent several days last week at the 2015 Superstars Writing Seminar:

Pictured: Famous authors and editors. Not pictured: me (off-panel to the left). Photo by the awesome Lauren Lang.

It was an excellent experience which I highly recommend to any writer with a desire to learn about the business of publishing and how to make a career out of writing. Even if you’ve already got a lot of knowledge in the area, this seminar gives you a nigh-unparalleled opportunity to meet authors and editors and pick their brains for information.

I took some notes at one particular panel that I would like to share with you. The panel was titled What Are Editors After and the presenters were all full-time editors or authors who have regularly edited anthologies or the like: Toni Weisskopf, Lisa Mangum, Eric Flint, Kevin J. Anderson, and David Farland. They mentioned several things that can crop up on the first page of a story that cause them to quickly set the submission aside. Here they are in the order of how frequently they were mentioned:

Repeated grammar and spelling errors

Now, all of these editors understand that typos happen; no one can edit a story to absolute perfection. But they unanimously agreed that a story with several typos or grammatical mistakes on the very first page wouldn’t be worth their time. Learn the grammar, edit carefully, and ask for help. Find yourself a freelance editor to go over your work if you feel you need it. Make sure that your story is as clear of error as it can be. Remember the Editor's Lake.

Poor formatting

For most of these editors, this wasn’t as big a deal as it was before the age of electronic submissions. Nowadays, if you used a font that they don’t like, they can simply hit “select all” and change it. But if you have a lot of formatting mistakes (strange margins, strange fonts, fonts that are too small or too large, etc.), they won’t bother making the changes; they’ll just set the story aside. If you’re not sure what a properly-formatted manuscript looks like, don’t worry—we’ll be going over that next time.

Remember: most of these editors don’t have very strict formatting requirements. Some other editors do. Always check a publication or editor’s submission guidelines to see if they have specific formatting requirements and then follow those directions exactly. No editor wants to work with someone who can’t follow simple directions.

The same topic that everyone else is writing about

Editors receive dozens to hundreds of submissions on a regular basis, and stories tend to come in waves—after Twilight became popular, there were a lot of vampire stories getting submitted all over, either from people who were inspired by the books or who felt that the world needed to see vampires done “properly.”  When scientists successfully cloned Dolly the sheep, a whole slew of cloning stories poured into submission piles around the nation. Tomorrow there will probably be another major news story that will inspire dozens or hundreds of similar stories. Since most editors have a very limited amount of time to go through the mountains of submissions they receive, these waves of similar stories all tend to blend together into one uniform, uninteresting blob.

This is a tricky problem to avoid. After all, how are you supposed to know what everyone else is writing about? The answer is really that you simply have to make your best educated guess. Don’t try to “write to the market” (meaning don’t deliberately write what “seems popular” right now). If you see an interesting news story or new scientific discovery and it spawns an idea for a story, then go ahead and start writing that story—but do your best to take that story several steps away from where it started. Throw away the first few characters and setting that come to mind and reach for something more unusual. Do the same with plot twists and endings. If you can, take your story so far afield that no one would ever be able to identify where it actually began. And don’t wait until halfway through the story to make your story different—if you don’t do it right from the start, the editor probably won’t get that far.

For a few more great tips on what not to do at the beginning of your submission, check out Ten Easy Ways To Get Rejected by David Farland (and don’t forget to avoid metaphors).

Monday, February 2, 2015

Metaphor and the Beginnings of Stories

Beginning a story can be a tricky thing. There’s a lot of information that you need to get across to your readers right away if they’re going to understand what’s going on: who the main character is, what their personality is like, where they are, what they’re doing, etc. And if you’re writing speculative fiction (fantasy, science fiction, horror, etc.) it gets even worse—you’ll probably have to introduce an entirely new world to your readers, complete with fantastic magic or technology, strange aliens or monstrous creatures, and imagined cultures with centuries or more of history.

That is a lot to get across to a reader, and deciding where to begin can be daunting. What can you show the readers that will be interesting and engaging without being so foreign as to be completely beyond understanding? What major elements of character and setting need to be given right away, and which need to be introduced slowly and subtly over time?

Sadly, I’m not here to answer all those questions for you. Maybe someday we’ll dive further into those topics, but this blog is for discussing errors that crop up in prose, not in plotting or content. So today I’d like to highlight a common prose mistake that many writers make in the beginning of their stories: the overuse of metaphors.

Most of you probably remember the simple definitions of simile and metaphor that you’ve been told since elementary school: a simile is describing one thing as being like something else, while a metaphor is describing a thing by saying it is something else even though you don’t literally mean it.

     Simile: The castle loomed over the town like an overprotective mother watching to make sure her children were playing safely.

     Metaphor: The train was a powerful, serpentine dragon winding through the hills, belching smoke from its great mouth.

Simple enough, right? Now I myself am not much of a metaphor man. I’ve heard a lot of talk about the poetic capabilities of metaphor and all that, but at the end of the day I tend to rely much more heavily on similes. If you’re a metaphor fan, then hey—more power to you. Just watch out to make sure you don’t pile up a lot of metaphors at the beginning of your story.

Why? Well, because at the beginning of your story, you haven’t been able to give all of that background we discussed earlier—all of the character, plot, personality, history, culture, setting, or explanation of various fantastical elements that your story might hold. And without all of that background, your readers won’t have any frame of reference to determine whether you are being metaphorical or literal.

For example, here’s the beginning of a story:

     Kalateia stood on the ridge surveying the dusty, bloody remnants of the battlefield. Corpses were strewn throughout the valley below, from mountain slope to mountain slope—her soldiers, the enemy’s soldiers, and hundreds of innocent civilians who’d had the misfortune to live in the valley where the two armies had met. Spider-like gravewagons crawled over the field, harvesting up bodies for use in future battles. The heavy corpses were difficult to gather, zombies clinging to the soil and to one another in a futile attempt to avoid the claws of the gravewagons.

So here’s the five-hundred-and-twenty-three-dollar question: are the corpses literal zombies or not? Are these “gravewagons” gathering up dead bodies that are simply trampled down into the blood-muddied soil and therefore seem to cling to the ground like strange zombies, or are those corpses literally undead and holding on to the ground and each other in an attempt to avoid being harvested? Without additional context, you can’t be absolutely certain, can you?

Even if you’re not writing speculative fiction, metaphors can be confusing at the beginning of a story. They can give your readers a moment where they’re knocked out of the story, where they stop to wonder, “wait, did I pick up a fantasy novel by mistake? What is this?” Sometimes it’s only a moment of confusion, sometimes it can be a few paragraphs or even several pages before they can be sure that you were being metaphorical. Either way, the last thing that you want to do during the first few pages of your story is introduce bumps into an already-steep learning curve. Beginnings are confusing enough—don’t add even more confusion!

You might think that your metaphor is clearly not meant to be taken literally, that there is no way someone could think you actually meant what you said. Something like:

     The bus moved through the field with surprising grace, a bulky cat carrying passengers to destinations unknown.

No one could take that literally, right?


There is almost no metaphor so outlandish that it will be clear to everyone that it’s not literal. So ease up on your metaphor usage until you’ve given your readers time to get some context.

There won't be any new posts for Wednesday and Friday this week, as I'll be busy at the Superstars Writing Seminar! Regular updates will resume on the 9th.