Monday, March 30, 2015

Minding Your "ings": Sentence Fragments

I recently went over sentence fragments—what they are and why they are a problem. As I was reading a manuscript this weekend, however, I suddenly realize that I neglected to mention the type of sentence fragment that is probably the most common: the “-ing”-verb sentence fragment.

Now, the -ing verb (or present participle) is a subject that I’ve covered a few times before. It’s a form of verb that is usually used to indicate that one action is being performed simultaneously to another action. For example:

     Gasping for breath, Amy slowed to a stop.

The above sentence indicates that two actions are occurring at the same time—Amy was gasping while she slowed to a stop.

Note that only one of the verbs in that sentence (gasping) is an -ing verb. The second verb (slowed) is a simple past-tense verb paired with the subject of the sentence, Amy. That’s because an -ing verb cannot serve as the primary verb of a sentence.

Remember: the most common use of the -ing verb is to indicate simultaneous actions—it can’t be used without another verb in the sentence that is conjugated to pair up with a subject, as in our example above. When writers attempt to use an -ing verb as the primary verb of the sentence, they end up with sentence fragments like this:

     Driving to the store.

This example has no subject! Who is driving to the store?

Pictured: The scene created by the sentence fragment "Driving to the store."

     His head pounding.

This example has a noun that could function as a subject, if it weren’t paired with an -ing verb.

     Gasping for breath, her lungs burning and her legs aching.

Again, this example has nouns (lungs and legs), but it has no verbs that aren’t in -ing format, so it is still a sentence fragment.

Now, you might look through your manuscript and find a sentence like this:

     Amy was running in the park.

That sentence doesn’t follow the same format as our good example above, does it? But it’s an -ing verb, and it’s grammatically sound. But note that there is a second verb in that sentence, one that is conjugated to work properly with the subject: was. That’s why this sentence works where the others didn’t.

(You might also note that there is no simultaneous action in that sentence. Take a moment, though, to think about how that sentence would be used. It would probably be part of an introduction to a scene, don’t you think? “Amy was running in the park. A dog approached her with a human hand in its mouth.” The simultaneous action is still there—it will just be in a different sentence.)

As I said before, this is probably the most common type of sentence fragment that I run across in manuscripts. So keep an eye on any sentences you have that feature an -ing verb, and make sure that they also have a proper subject and verb. Even then, though, there’s a lot of ways that -ing verbs can go wrong. To make sure everything is in order, go back through the rest of the “Minding Your ‘-ings’” series to make sure that your -ings are all square: here’s the links to Part One, Part Two, and Part Three.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Punctuation Problems: Hyphens and Compound Modifiers

One of the most common uses for the hyphen (-) is to connect compound modifiers. A compound modifier is a mix of two or more adjectives or adverbs that jointly modify the same word. So, for example:

     He is such a well-behaved boy.

The words well and behaved work in tandem to modify boy. Well clarifies the meaning of behaved, and together they carry a new descriptive meaning. They are acting together as though they were a single adjective. Here are some other examples:

     “You think she committed the murder? She’s a ninety-seven-year-old woman, for heaven’s sake!”

     “My hospital takes a very patient-centered approach to healthcare.”

     “The creature had a 50-foot wingspan!”

Note that in compound modifiers that involve numbers, a hyphen is required whether you spell out the number or use numerals (so the last example could also be fifty-foot; but a hyphen is needed either way).

Part of the reason for this rule is to avoid potentially confusing situations. For example:

     “We met an American football player in the pub last night.”

Did the speakers meet someone who plays American football, or did they meet a football player who is also American? A hyphen can add clarification:

     “We met an American-football player in the pub last night.”

The hyphen lets us know that those two descriptors belong together; thus, the answer is that the speakers met someone who plays American football.

"Man eating plant" vs. "Man-eating plant."

Remember that you only hyphenate words that are working together as a single adjective. So the following usage would be incorrect:

     “This might be the most well-thought-out-and-over-detailed plan I’ve ever seen.”

Well-thought-out and over-detailed are two separate descriptions, so the example should instead read:

     “This might be the most well-thought-out and over-detailed plan I’ve ever seen.”


Sadly, it can’t just be that simple. There are a few exceptions to the hyphenating-compound-modifiers rule.

First exception: If the first word in the compound modifier is an adverb that ends in -ly, it is extremely unusual to hyphenate the two words together.

     He is such a poorly behaved boy.

     Part of the reason for this rule is to avoid potentially confusing situations.

Second exception: This rule only applies to compound modifiers that appear before the word they modify. If they appear after, they should not be hyphenated. Here’s what some of our earlier examples would look like if the compound modifiers had appeared after the word they modified:

     “That boy is so well behaved.”

     “You think she committed the murder? That woman is ninety seven years old, for heaven’s sake!”

     “My hospital’s approach to healthcare is very patient centered.”

     “The creature had a wingspan of 50 feet!”

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

On Dealing With Rejection

Perhaps the hardest aspect of pursuing a career as an author is dealing with rejection. Any writer who desires to be professionally published will have to deal with editors or agents continually turning down their work. Even successful authors are not immune to this problem; while they generally deal with less rejection from editors and agents, they make up for it with inevitable negative reviews, harsh critics, and vitriol from fans and non-fans alike.

How you deal with rejection and criticism once you're famous and successful is up to you. Some authors prefer to ignore it and focus on their successes. Others prefer to confront their critics. Your methods of dealing with such problems should depend on what makes you feel better, on how you wish to be perceived by the public, and on how you handle conflict.

But dealing with rejection before you're famous and successful is another matter entirely. At this stage in your career, most of the rejection you face will come from editors or agents. Some of them will not be gentle; some of them might be outright rude or harsh. Even gentle rejections or criticisms can be difficult to handle, especially when you have to face them over and over and over. In those situations, the most important thing for you to do is calm down and don't lash out.

Don't respond angrily to the editor (or agent)

Remember my post about being humble in your cover letter? Everything I said there applies to all interactions with editors and agents. When I first began working at a literary magazine, I was astounded at how many writers would respond angrily, defensively, or condescendingly when they received a rejection or critique from us. These weren't simply passing comments in the cover letter of the next story they sent us; they went out of their way to compose a reply and mail it to us. Don't be that person. It won't do you any good.

Don't try to correct the editor

Similarly, writing to editors to inform them that their comments on your story were incorrect is useless. You're not going to convince an editor that your story was actually better than they originally thought. You'll only make yourself look arrogant and unaware. It might hurt to be rejected, but lashing out at the editor will only hurt your chances of being published in the future.

You might think, "Well, I just won't submit to that editor or agent again." But editors move around a lot. They work on side projects, they move to new companies. I have, on more than one occasion, had stories pitched to me by authors who didn't realize that I was the same person that they'd once arrogantly chewed out for rejecting a story. Publishing is a smaller world than most people think.

Don't badmouth the editor

Venting is a useful method of dealing with disappointment and the hurt of rejection. If you're upset with an editor or agent that rejected you, feel free to complain to some close friends, to your spouse, to your siblings, or to your parents. Find a sympathetic shoulder. Do not, however, badmouth the editor or agent to other editors, to other agents, or to other writers. Like I said, publishing is a smaller world than you might expectodds are pretty good that the professional that you're complaining to will know the person that you're badmouthing. They might be friends. Either way, you won't make yourself look good by criticizing someone with more experience and clout in the industryyou'll just look arrogant and petty.

And this should go without sayingdon't badmouth the editor or agent on Twitter, Facebook, or other social media. The internet is a public forum; don't post anything anywhere that you don't want the whole world to see.

The road to publication is difficult enough as it is; if you allow rejection to make you angry or bitter, if you lash out at the people who could potentially publish you, you'll just make your road that much more rocky, steep, and difficult.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Commas and Introductory Phrases

     Because he hated it when people came to his door Hermit Jones moved to an isolated cave in the mountains.

There is something missing from that sentence, and that something is a comma. It belongs between the introductory phrase and the rest of the sentence:

     Because he hated it when people came to his door, Hermit Jones moved to an isolated cave in the mountains.

How can you tell when a phrase is an “introductory phrase” rather than a normal beginning to a sentence? Well, first you need to know your basic sentence structure:

     SUBJECT      VERB     (sometimes optional) DIRECT OBJECT
        Callie           loves             those soft orange candy peanuts.

Most sentences begin with the subject of the sentence (and any adjectives used to describe them). If there is a complete phrase before the subject of the sentence, it is usually an introductory phrase that will need to be set apart by a comma. Introductory phrases usually describe the location, time, conditions, or reasons for the action taken by the sentence’s subject. So in our example above, Hermit Jones is the subject and moved is the verb. Everything before Hermit Jones is an introductory phrase describing his reason for moving, so it requires a comma to set it apart from the rest of the sentence.

Here’s some other examples:

      Before I get into the story, I should warn you that it is rather disturbing.

     Afraid of exposing herself to mockery, Dorothy decided not to try out for the cheerleading squad.

     To be perfectly honest, I don’t really understand the appeal of snowboarding.

     Lately, Georgina has seemed rather distressed and distant.

Now most of these examples have introductory phrases of several words, but take note of that last one. An introductory phrase can be as short as a single word. With such short introductory phrases, it isn’t uncommon to forgo a comma—I did it with “now” at the beginning of this paragraph, for example.

     Lately Georgina has seemed rather distressed and distant.

If you’re not sure whether or not it’s acceptable to leave out the comma between your short introductory phrase and the rest of the sentence, err on the side of caution and put the comma in.

The question of whether or not to include the introductory-phrase-comma is like the question of whether or not to bring food to a party: you might be okay if you don't, but you'll always be okay if you do.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Calm Down About "Whom"

I’ve gone over what makes a sentence quite a few times lately (subject + verb + direct object if needed), so now seems a good time to go over who and whom, since those two words are closely related to sentence structure.

The question of when to use who or whom is one of the most common grammatical questions in the English-speaking portion of the world. 

(Toby was right, naturally.)

The explanation is actually pretty simple: use who when the word is the subject of the sentence (or an embedded clause—more on that in a moment) and use whom when it isn’t the subject.

     Who      bought    these cookies?
   Subject     Verb      Direct Object

        To whom              should          I           give       the cookie?
   Indirect Object         Verbal      Subject     Verb         Direct
(i.e. not the subject)   Auxiliary                                    Object

An embedded clause is basically a sentence within a sentence—it has its own subject and verb:

     We       need to find out         who bought these cookies.
   Subject         Verbs             Embedded clause with who as its subject

I could go on for much longer about how to properly use who and whom, but I’m not going to; Matthew Inman has already done a great (and much more entertaining) breakdown of that over at The Oatmeal. What I would like to delve into is why—why whom is so tricky, and why you should (or shouldn’t) use it.

Why Whom Is Tricky

(This section is pretty in-depth, so if you’re just interested in advice on using whom, skip to the next section)

There are quite a few pronouns that have both a subjective form and an objective form. For example:

I and me, she and her—we’re all used to these pronoun pairs, right? We don’t have to stop and think for a moment to figure out whether to say they or them. So why are who and whom difficult to keep straight?

Part of the answer is that who is different from the other pronouns shown in that chart. I, you, he, she, and they are all personal pronouns. Who, on the other hand, is what we call an interrogative pronoun—a pronoun that asks which person or thing is meant. Let’s look at who and whom on a chart with other interrogative pronouns:

Notice how who stands out? It’s literally the only interrogative pronoun in the English language that changes depending on how it is used. No wonder it’s so hard to use, when every similar word works in a completely different (and far simpler) manner!

So why is who different from all the other interrogative pronouns? Well, language is constantly evolving—new uses for words develop while old ones fall away and disappear. All those other interrogative pronouns probably used to have objective forms that fell out of use long before the language began to form into what it is today. The same thing happened to you. Take a look at that first chart up above—notice how you is the only personal pronoun on the chart that doesn’t have a distinct objective form. But that wasn’t always the case.

There was a time when you not only had an objective form, but also had a separate singular form that declined into its own objective. So our chart above would once have looked something like this:

Over time, thou, thee, and ye all fell out of use; these days, we use you in all of the instances where we would once have used those other words. Imagine if English teachers around the world suddenly began to demand that we all resume using thou, thee, and ye. It wouldn’t go well—it would be confusing and irritating if people tried to force us to use words that don’t improve or enhance our ability to communicate. But, for some stubborn reason, that’s exactly what people do with whom. We don’t need the word; it doesn’t improve the language. But people just won’t let it go.

Why You Should Use Whom and Why You Shouldn’t

Whom is on its way out—give us another century, tops, and it won’t really be part of the language anymore. It’ll be an abandoned, archaic word like thou or whence; a word we all know used to be part of the language, something we can find in older books, but not a word that even the most demanding college professors demand we use. And good riddance to it.

Most of the time, my advice to new writers is to pay attention to all of the rules of grammar—don’t risk looking inept because you don’t care about comma splices or the difference between amused and humored. Whom, on the other hand, is one of the rare bits of grammar that I feel beginning writers can safely ignore. In fact, you'll look worse if you use whom incorrectly than you will if you don't use it at all!

Generally, whom is not a word you should bother with unless you have a specific purpose in mind. If you are striving for an intellectual and formal tone to your story, than go ahead and whom it up. If you have an educated or pedantic character, you can pepper their language with whoms. But if you want your dialog or your prose to feel more relaxed and natural, then get rid of the word. It’s not something that most editors will be bothered by—if they really feel that you need to use whom, then they’ll tell you; but they won’t reject your manuscript because of it.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Identifying Sentence Fragments

I was browsing through my old posts this morning and was surprised to find that I haven’t written about sentence fragments before. So let’s dive back into the basics of what makes up a sentence: a subject, a verb, and (often) a direct object.

     Mary-Anne    devoured    her sandwich.
        Subject           Verb        Direct Object

The subject of the sentence is the thing that is performing an action. The verb is the action that is being performed. The direct object is the thing that is being acted upon—the thing that the verb is affecting. Not all verbs require a direct object.

     Nathaniel    ran.
       Subject     Verb      (no direct object needed)

No matter how much additional information you add, the heart of your sentence will always be a subject, a verb, and a potential direct object.

     Every morning before work, Mary-Anne jogged around the park.
                Additional Info               Subject     Verb        Add. Info 

     Nathaniel loves peanuts on his ice cream sundaes.
       Subject   Verb   D.O.            Add. Info

If a sentence does not have that central subject and verb, then it isn’t a sentence—it’s a sentence fragment.

The subject and verb of a sentence are like the bread in a sandwich; take them away, and you no longer have a sandwich, you have a salad. Or worse, a KFC Double Down.

     Mary-Anne looked around the dusty old room. Light from the window fell upon an open jewelry box sitting on the shelf, full of tarnished old jewelry. Dirty emerald bracelets and ragged pearl necklaces.

The first sentence of that example has both a subject and a verb: Mary-Anne and looked, respectively. The second sentence has them as well: Light and fell. The third sentence, however, is a fragment—it has nouns that could serve as subjects, but it has no verb.

The problem with sentence fragments is they technically have no meaning—they can impart scant amounts of information, but they don’t tell readers what to do with it. Imagine helping a friend clean their house; you arrive, they hand you a bucket of paint and a brush, and then they walk off without explaining what they wanted you to do with the paint. Do you paint the room you’re in? Another room? The exterior of the house? Did they just want you to put the can of paint away?

Sentence fragments create a similar sense of confusion on a smaller scale. They can throw your readers out of the story, which is rarely desirable.

Now, sentence fragments aren’t always bad. Think about the way you think—it’s not always in complete sentences, is it? Sentence fragments can be a useful method for mimicking the way people think and perceive the world. For instance:

     I sniffed the air, trying to identify the familiar scent. Pickles? Why did my office smell like pickles?

In that example, Pickles? is a sentence fragment. Since it mimics the way humans think, it is easy and natural to follow the author’s intended meaning. This is a useful fragment.

In the future we may delve more deeply into sentence fragments and what makes them work or not work. For now, my advice is to avoid them. They can be occasionally useful, but their detriments tend to outweigh their usefulness unless you really know what you’re doing. More often than not, you’re better off using full sentences.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Narrative Gaps

What’s missing from the following passage?

     “Have you heard from Gil?” Miranda asked as she lit her cigarette.
     “No,” Nikolai replied, frowning at the smoke. “But he’s usually bad about checking in.” It was unusual to hear from Gil more often than once a week.
     “But you’re worried anyway, aren’t you?” Miranda blew some more smoke in Nikolai’s face and then smiled.

The hint to what is missing is those words “some more.” We’re told that Miranda blew some more smoke into Nikolai’s face, which implies that she’d done that once already. But that first time wasn’t shown—she lit the cigarette, Nikolai was bothered by the smoke, and then she was already blowing the smoke a second time.

This is similar to the perspective error mentioned here, but it’s a more general, widespread problem. The problem with these little gaps in the narrative is that they knock the reader out of the story. You don’t want your readers pausing to look through what they’ve read, thinking that perhaps they missed something earlier. Confusion is the enemy of immersive reading.

These sorts of small gaps in a scene are usually the result of a series of edits—relics of earlier drafts.

Cleaning up little narrative gaps after numerous drafts and re-writes is a little like trying to keep your house clean while children are living in it; there's always a new problem to fix.

Perhaps the author deleted the section of dialog wherein Miranda first blew smoke in Nikolai’s face without remembering to alter the later line of text. Maybe the author mistakenly thought she had already had Miranda blow some smoke and added the above instance without double-checking.

Unfortunately, since these errors tend to come about because authors are overwhelmed with trying to keep track of dozens to hundreds of edits at once, the task of catching them without aid is next to impossible. That’s where alpha and beta readers come in—find some friends who are attentive and thoughtful readers and ask them to go through your story and highlight any discrepancies you find. Once you’ve fixed the errors they found, ask a completely different group of readers to go over the story.

Another useful method is to search through your manuscript for terms such as again, once more, or some more—any terms that could indicate repetition. Make sure, if you've got someone performing an action a second time, that they actually performed it the first time.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Italics In Your Story

Italics are slanted letters that can be used for a variety of purposes in writing. Back when manuscripts were written by hand or typewriter, it was common for authors and editors to manually underline words or phrases that should be italicized later on by the typesetters. This was a matter of expediency—typewriters didn’t have italic letters, and it’s generally difficult to tell apart italicized handwriting from normal handwriting. These days, however, computers have rendered underlines almost entirely redundant, since writers can simply italicize anything that needs to be right from the start.

Italics have several handy uses:

Emphasis: This is perhaps the most common use of italics in stories. When people converse, they use all sorts of variations in their tone, pitch, volume, and pronunciation to convey subtle nuances of meaning. Using italics to indicate that a speaker has emphasized a particular word is one method writers have of mimicking these otherwise un-type-able subtleties of speech. Italics can completely alter our understanding of a character’s frame of mind and intent without changing the story’s wordcount at all. Compare, for example, this line of dialog:

     “I can’t believe you did that!”

with this line of dialog:

     “I can’t believe you did that!”

It’s the exact same line, but it has two different meanings. Such is the usefulness of italics. Be warned, however, that too-frequent use of this trick will grow tiresome—try to only use it when the emphasis is really important, just to be safe.

Marking foreign language: If you use a foreign language in your story, it is common to italicize the word or phrase in order to highlight that it is, in fact, another language, rather than an unfamiliar or appropriated English word. This is applicable whether the foreign language is a real-life language or one you’ve created for your book. Once you’ve italicized a word once, you generally don’t need to italicize it again if you don’t want to. Examples:

     “One of my favorite words in Russian is pochemuchik. It literally translates as ‘why-ling,’ referring to a child that constantly asks the question, ‘Why?’ I have a pochemuchik of my own at home, and it’s nice to have a succinct word to describe him.”

     The sorceress raised her hands and shouted in the language of magic: “Durakin lo-tuma fei!

Marking words referred to as words: A word is simultaneously two things—it is the item, person, creature, action, trait, or concept that the word represents, and it is also a simple word. For example:

     The castle loomed over the tiny town, always covering the villagers in its shadow.


     The word castle has six letters.

See what I mean? In the first example, we’re speaking of the concept that the word castle represents; in the second example, we’re talking about the word itself, the collection of letters before our eyes. In such cases, as you can see, it is common to italicize the word to distinguish it from the concept it represents.

Note: the same applies to letters referred to as letters (the letter A).

Titles: The titles of books, movies, television shows, radio programs, plays, operas, ballets, long poems, long musical pieces, podcasts, blogs, comics, comic strips, newspapers, magazines, journals, paintings, sculptures, photographs, and other works of art or prose should be italicized. Basically, if it is something that someone has created and given a title, that title should be italicized.

     In many issues of Batman, you can see that Bruce Wayne’s parents were killed as they were leaving a showing of The Mark of Zorro.

Yes, this is from Batman/Superman, not Batman. It's all I could find, sorry.
 There are only a few exceptions to this rule: the names of websites (other than blogs or online journals), generic titles of musical pieces (such as Nocturne in B Major), and titles of older works of art whose creators are unknown (such as the Venus de Milo) are not generally italicized.

Note also that the names of individual portions of a work of art, such as book chapters; episodes of television shows, radio programs, or podcasts; and articles in newspapers, magazines, journals, or blogs should be placed in quotation marks but not italicized. The titles of short works should be treated the same way, such as short stories, most poems, and songs.

The names of ships: Be it a boat, an aircraft, or a spaceship, its name should be italicized: USS Alabama, the Nautilus, Hindenburg, Serenity, the Millennium Falcon.

Sounds: This is an often-missed use of italics. Onomatopoeia—any words intended to represent sounds—should generally be italicized:

     His head hit the floor with an unsettling crack.

     A deafening whirr filled the room.

Character thoughts: While italics aren’t the only way to express direct character thoughts, they are one of the clearest:

     It doesn’t matter how clear I am, she always misunderstands, Katya thought. But she said nothing.

To indicate dreams or other unrealistic settings: Italics are an unusual but occasionally useful method of setting apart one section of the story from another, usually when the italicized section is a non-real sequence of events such as a dream or vision. Terry Brooks used this method in his novel Running With The Demon to highlight the prophetic dreams of one of his characters. The only problem with this method is that some people really have trouble reading entire sections in italics, so use this sparingly.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Calm Down About Naming Your Characters

The process of naming characters is one that writers tend to over-complicate, just like they do with writing cover letters or the first lines of their stories. There is plenty of advice out there on how to come up with realistic-sounding names for science fiction and fantasy or where to look for names in the real world. Whatever your method for coming up with character names, just remember to watch out for these common pitfalls:

Try to avoid names that are difficult to pronounce. Even if your audience isn’t reading your story out loud, they’ll usually attempt to decipher the pronunciation of any names they come across. For their sake, it might be easier to shorten or change complicated names. A character named Vyacheslav might go by the easier-to-read nickname of Slava, for instance. This will make the name easier for your readers to remember.

Avoid choosing too many names that all begin with the same letter. I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s useful advice. The first letter of a name is always what will stand out most to the reader; in the case of difficult-to-pronounce names, the first letter might be the only thing your readers understand! Sean, Saladin, and Soo-mi are going to be harder for your readers to keep separate than Mike, Saladin, and Bo-yeon.

This problem gets even worse with names that share several common letters. If you have four main characters and three of them are named Tiala, Tahi, and Tolai, your readers will probably have trouble remembering who is who. It doesn’t matter if the letters are in a different order—our minds take in the whole word at once, and an h looks a lot like an l when we’re reading quickly. Remember: at the beginning of the story, your readers are already having to remember whole waterfalls’ worth of new information. Don’t make it harder for them by giving them several names that are virtually similar.

This is a problem that I often see crop up with twin characters. Naming your twins Tyler and Taylor might seem fun, but it will make it all sorts of difficult for your audience to keep them separate. Now, if you don’t want your readers to keep the twins separate—if you want them to essentially function as one unit at all times—then matching names shouldn’t be a problem. But there’s no need for your twins to have matching names, otherwise.

Hesitate before picking a name with special meaning. This is a temptation that I understand all too well. An easy way to name characters is to simply pick an important aspect of their personality or their role and to then find a name with that meaning. For instance, Darth Vader’s name literally means “father” in German, while Mufasa means “king.” This isn’t always a bad thing—we all love Vader and Mufasa, after all—but it is over-done and, in this age of the internet, potentially spoiler-riffic. You’ll often be better off choosing a meaningless-but-original name over a meaningful-but-heavy-handed name. If Star Wars had been released now, how long do you think it would have taken for the internet to figure out Vader’s identity based on his name? Not long. Too many villains have the root “mal” shoehorned into their name; quite a few protagonists have been named some variant of "Hiro" . . . and how many demons out there are named some version of “Crowley?”

I can think of three off the top of my head.

Make sure you have the correct era and nationality. This is simply a matter of taking the time to do your research. Don’t name your Russian character Kowalski—that’s a Polish name. Don’t name a woman in 1800s England Carly—that name didn’t really become common until the 1980s. If you’re not familiar with the naming conventions of the place or time, then do some research or ask someone who is familiar with them.

Don’t worry. Here’s the thing about character names—if you do a good job creating a deep, realistic, and engaging character, then it won’t matter what you name them. A good character will make just about any name seem to fit them; they will redefine people’s conceptions of what the name means. For instance:

When I first began watching How I Met Your Mother, I was completely thrown off by the fact that they named one of their characters “Barney.” I mean, come on—Barney? We all know what comes to mind when people hear that name.

But after a few episodes, Barney’s name ceased to bother me. After a few seasons, my mental picture of the name had been completely and permanently altered. That’s what a good, strong character can do.

So don’t worry about picking the perfect name for your character. Write a good character, and they will be able to make just about any name work for them.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Word Mix-Ups: "Amused" and "Humored"

Amused and humored are yet another pair of words that I see many authors attempt to use interchangeably, but which are not in fact interchangeable.

To amuse means “to entertain or occupy in a light, playful, or pleasant manner” or “to appeal to the sense of humor of.” In the form amused, it can be used as either a past-tense verb or an adjective:

     Past-tense verb: He amused himself for hours on the internet.

     Adjective: She did her best not to look amused.

Generally, when writers confuse these two words, they are using humored as an adjective where they should have used amused:

     Anya was glad to see Lilia laugh; it had been a long time since she’d seen her sister so humored.

     I chuckled, mildly humored.

The confusion here likely arises because, as we all know, the noun humor and the adjective humorous both relate to amusement—respectively, they designate the capacity to recognize something as silly, ludicrous, funny, or amusing and the state of being silly, ludicrous, funny, or amusing. The problem is that humored is neither a noun or an adjective; it is a verb that means something entirely different.

To humor means “to soothe or content by indulgence” or “to adapt oneself to.” Basically, it means “to indulge someone for the purpose of calming them down or pleasing them.”

     The old woman claimed that there was a dragon in her living room. We humored her and searched the whole house, but of course we didn’t find a thing.

Humor can also mean "bodily fluid." I was going to give you a picture to go along with that little fact, but I thought better of it. Have a picture of an amused baby instead.

You should generally be able to replace the verb to humor with the verb to indulge. If you can’t, you’re probably not using it correctly. So, using our examples from above:

     CORRECT: The old woman claimed that there was a dragon in her living room. We indulged her and searched the whole house, but of course we didn’t find a thing.

     INCORRECT: Anya was glad to see Lilia laugh; it had been a long time since she’d seen her sister so indulged.


I have also seen humored used where the author actually meant good-humored. They are not synonyms.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Tense Errors: Switching Between Past and Present

All right. Now that we’ve gone over the two types of tense that most stories are written in (past or present) we can get to the fun part—how people screw it up!

The most common type of tense error is simple: the narrative switches from past to present tense or from present to past tense when it shouldn’t. This is usually a quick, momentary mistake.

 We've all learned that switching back and forth between past and present when we don't intend to is a dangerous thing.
Here's an example passage:

     Spring had finally arrived in Chicago. I stood at my window, enjoying the warmth of the afternoon sun on my face and admiring the blossoms on the trees. The last of the snow has finally melted into puddles that are perfect for children to splash in. I smiled, glad that the long winter was finally over.
     Winter ending meant that my brother would soon return home. I was a little nervous. My brother was an unpredictable, even volatile man. There were times that he loses his temper unexpectedly but then calms down almost immediately. He inherited the trait from our father.

There’s a few errors of tense in that passage. Fixing them is simply a matter of identifying where the tense is incorrect and switching it back. If you have trouble picking the errors out, remember that tense is always contained in the verbs.  Nouns, adjectives, adverbs—every part of the language remains the same from past tense to present tense except for the verbs.

So, let’s highlight the verbs in that passage. We'll skip the gerunds and participles (the "ing" verbs), the unconjugated verbs ("to _____"), and other verb forms that won't generally change from past to present usage.

     Spring had arrived in Chicago. I stood at my window, enjoying the warmth of the afternoon sun on my face and admiring the blossoms on the trees. The last of the snow has melted into puddles that are perfect for children to splash in. I smiled, glad that the long winter was finally over.
     Winter ending meant that my brother would soon return home. I was a little nervous. My brother was an unpredictable, even volatile man. There were times that he loses his temper unexpectedly but then calms down almost immediately. He inherited the trait from our father.

Simple enough, right? Now let’s separate them by their tense—past tense in green and present tense in orange.

     Spring had arrived in Chicago. I stood at my window, enjoying the warmth of the afternoon sun on my face and admiring the blossoms on the trees. The last of the snow has melted into puddles that are perfect for children to splash in. I smiled, glad that the long winter was finally over.
     Winter ending meant that my brother would soon return home. I was a little nervous. My brother was an unpredictable, even volatile man. There were times that he loses his temper unexpectedly but then calms down almost immediately. He inherited the trait from our father.

The passage is written in past tense, so we simply need to take the present tense verbs and switch them to past tense.

     Spring had arrived in Chicago. I stood at my window, enjoying the warmth of the afternoon sun on my face and admiring the blossoms on the trees. The last of the snow had melted into puddles that were perfect for children to splash in. I smiled, glad that the long winter was finally over.
     Winter ending meant that my brother would soon return home. I was a little nervous. My brother was an unpredictable, even volatile man. There were times that he lost his temper unexpectedly but then calmed down almost immediately. He inherited the trait from our father.

And that’s that. If this seemed easy to you, that’s good—this should come pretty naturally to most people. If this didn't seem easy to you, that's okay—it's because tenses aren't actually as simple as just "past" and "present." In the future, we’ll discuss how errors can crop up in tenses most people don’t even know exist!

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Tense Overview: Past vs. Present

Quite a while ago, I did an overview of the different forms of perspective and tense in which stories are commonly written. Since that time, I’ve done more in-depth looks at each type of perspective and have gone over numerous perspective errors. But what about tense? I never got around to returning to that topic, so let’s do that today.

There are two primary tenses from which stories are written: past and present.

There's a reason "Future" isn't checked: unless you have an amazingly good reason for it, you shouldn't bother trying to write a story in future tense.

I mean it.


Past Tense

Past tense is the most common form of tense in fiction. Stories written past tense are being told as though they have already happened and are being related to the reader after the fact, whether by a character in the story, an omniscient narrator, or an implied, invisible narrator.  Here’s some examples.

     When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury. His left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of his hand was at right angles to his body, his thumb parallel to his thigh. He couldn’t have cared less, so long as he could pass and punt. (from To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee)

     “Good evening,” said Lucy. But the Faun was so busy picking up its parcels that at first it did not reply. When it had finished it made her a little bow.
     “Good evening, good evening,” said the Faun. “Excuse me—I don’t want to be inquisitive—but should I be right in thinking that you are a Daughter of Eve?”
     “My name’s Lucy,” said she, not quite understanding him.
     (from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis)

Advantages of Past Tense

It’s common and familiar: Most stories by far are written in past tense, which means most readers are accustomed to reading it. Past tense presents no barriers to them; anyone can pick up the book and get straight to important things like plot and character. With present tense, on the other hand, readers can often get irritated or confused because the tense feels unfamiliar and foreign. Odds are that the more reading your readers have done, the less they will like present tense.

Believability: Part of the difficulty of present tense is that it is unrealistic—is this character standing here narrating to someone while events happen? Is there some sort of chip in their brain translating their thoughts into diary entries? Past tense, on the other hand, uses a perfectly common convention—that of someone telling the story of something that once happened. “I went to the store this morning, but they were out of the bread I like.” That’s a past tense story that you might hear any day.

Present Tense

Stories written in the present tense are told as though they are currently happening. The most well-known example of this is probably The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins:

     “Look what I shot.” Gale holds up a loaf of bread with an arrow stuck in it, and I laugh. It’s real bakery bread, not the flat, dense loaves we make from our grain rations. I take it in my hands, pull out the arrow, and hold the puncture in the crust to my nose, inhaling the fragrance that makes my mouth flood with saliva. Fine bread like this is for special occasions.
     “Mm, still warm,” I say. He must have been at the bakery at the crack of dawn to trade for it. “What did it cost you?”
     “Just a squirrel. Think the old man was feeling sentimental this morning,” says Gale. “Even wished me luck."

Advantages of Present Tense

Immediacy: Stories told in the past tense tend to have a reflective nature, since the narrator presumably knows the whole story and is now telling it from a position of comfort and safety. Present tense stories, however, give the impression that not even the narrator knows what will happen next—readers are seeing everything as it happens, so anything could happen!

Easy flashbacks: In a present tense story, it can be very easy for your readers to keep track of the when of the story if you flash back to earlier events—the majority of the story will be told in present tense, and flashbacks will be told in past tense. Easy to see and follow. In past tense, however, it can be difficult to tell when the author jumps backwards or forward in time. Everything will either sound the same, or the author will be forced to dive into awkward past perfect continuous sense—a complete mess of a task for someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing.

In the future, we’ll take a look at some of the ways that tense errors can crop up in your writing.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Pronoun Confusion, Part Three

Again with the pronouns. And again with the quick review:

Pronoun: a word that stands in for a noun or noun phrase. We’ve focused on proper pronouns such as he, she, it, we, and they as well as possessive pronouns such as his, her, its, our, or their.

Antecedent: the word that the pronoun replaces. Tamara could be the antecedent to she, for instance, or the magicians’ could be the antecedent to their.

We’ve discussed how important it is to ensure that it’sclear which noun is the antecedent to each pronoun you use. There are few things as confusing to a reader as not knowing which of your female cast members you’re referring to when you say she.

One of the most common causes of confusion in regards to pronouns and antecedents is an old, oft-ignored rule: a possessive noun cannot function as an antecedent. Here’s an example of this rule being broken:

     Violet’s eyes were always downcast because she was so afraid of confrontation.

In that example, she is the pronoun, and it is clear that the she being spoken of is Violet. The only problem is that the word Violet never appeared in the sentence—the word Violet’s did. Why does that matter? Well, because pronouns take the place of nouns, and Violet’s isn’t actually a noun. It’s an adjective describing eyes, the actual noun and subject of the sentence. So technically, the pronoun she is referring back to a noun that doesn’t exist. It’s a problem called a possessive antecedent.

Now, I called this a “problem,” but the fact of the matter is that this is extremely common in both written and spoken English. Everyone does this at some point or another, sometimes very frequently. The reason this error is so common is that it isn’t confusing—look back at that example sentence again. When you read it, were you ever confused about who she referred to? No. You knew that she meant “Violet.”

So while that sentence is technically grammatically incorrect, it’s not that big of a problem. If I were your editor, I would make you fix this sort of error, but many editors probably wouldn’t care about it. You can fix these if you want to go the extra mile.

However. There are two situations where the possessive antecedent should always be fixed. The first is when there is another possible antecedent in the sentence with it:

     Gregorii plunged the knife into Pavel’s leg, making him grunt.

This is similar to the problem we discussed in part one of this pronoun series—if there are two subjects in one sentence to whom the pronoun could refer, your readers can’t be positive which subject you meant. In the example above, it’s pretty clear that Pavel is the one grunting; but grammatically speaking, the only noun in the sentence is Gregorii. Try to avoid this situation. Here is a revised version:

     Gregorii plunged the knife into Pavel’s leg and twisted it viciously. Pavel merely grunted.

The second situation is when the possessive you're referring back to is describing a noun that could also be described by the pronoun. For instance:

     Terrel's son was happy and well-adjusted because he was such a great dad.

Who is he? Is Terrel's son happy because Terrel is a great dad? Because this sentence actually says that Terrel's son is happy because he is a great father to his own, unmentioned son (Terrel's grandson).

The sentence is so vague that it could imply either of these situations. Writers should be more precise than that.

If you wanted to convey that Terrel was the great dad, then you need to rephrase the sentence to something like this:

     Terrel was a great dad, so his son was happy and well-adjusted.

For more information on pronouns and the confusion they can cause, check out Part One and Part Two of this series.