The Joys of Copy Editing

Joe’s Post #181

Who knows more about great suffering, I ask you?

June 5th, Yager’s War was finally sent to an agent who’d requested it. Like most things worth doing, this was not achieved without great suffering. Or at least great silliness. Especially when it comes to the copy-editing,

The writing of the novel was fun. The rewrite a lot of work.  A LOT. Then I did up the first final draft and sent it off to my trusted readers. They came back with suggestions, ideas and concerns. I dealt with them all.

Then came the dreaded copy edit. Now, some people have minds fo copy-editing. Smart people. People who can do the NY Times Crosswords in pen. The people who beat Jeopardy winners to the questions. People who can quote Shakespeare instead of Snoop Dog.

Not me. I am like that dog in Up. I get distracted very easily. My mind’s always thinking of something. Like where did I put my Def Leppard tape from the 80’s? Or why did Ares try to convert Wonder Woman when clearly, she wasn’t all about the whole ‘let’s kill mankind’ thing.

But I got some help from my friends and did the best I could. I went slowly. I used Gammarly. I blew up the font to be so huge, it could be read from space (so I wouldn’t start actually reading the story and get all lost in it.)

And then, after a freaking month, 459 pages, I finished.

But for laughs, here’s what I found.

I had to look up the crazy stuff like is adam’s apple capitalized? Well, it turns out, yes, yes it is. Adam’s apple. (I’ll take stupid things the English language does for 200.

Or you can ask Bill Maher. Wait, too soon?

Alec.)

I found that I had written gate instead of gait. Oh, I knew the difference, but somewhere in my brain, gate came out. I did the same thing with hanger and hangar that my critique group still giggle about.

I actually wrote, “bowels of soup” instead of “bowls.”

Looked up if herring should be capitalized (grammarly said yes, but google says no, so, I, ah, guess it’s kinda dealer’s choice.) I went without.

I wrote, “at the there.”  Yup. Dunno how, but that came out.

Later, I wrote, “on the table above the table.” I had to wonder if I’d been drinking that night. Or just up too late.

But seriously, WTF!?!?

Then I found that I’d written, “whipped the anger from his face.” which made me giggle.

From the Huff Post. They know their women’s bits.

I spent an hour, I kid you not, trying to find good words for lady bits. Then another hour reading about the time-line of genital slang. Then briefly thought about using stiff deity instead of erection. But, my cop, being from Chicago and all, would probably not have used that term. Makes me want to write a novel using that as a title. (See how I can get distracted.)

I made lots of comma errors, plenty of ‘he’ instead of ‘the’ mistakes, buggered up the paragraphing somehow from one document to another, and even accidentally copy-and-pasted a deleted chapter back into the final draft.

Oh, fun times.

This is how I imagine the book cover. Only with the shadow of a man in a coat and hat looking all detectivie

But it’s all done. Yager’s War, 109,000 words is out there. A story set in Amsterdam in 1940 about a Chicago Detective who races against the clock to find his missing sister before the Germans invade.

It’s the best writing I’ve done.

Wish me luck.

(Copy edited by the Prettiest-girl-in-the-world).

Lives of punctuation marks

question-mark

Silk’s Post #155 — If you don’t think deeply about punctuation marks, you’re not alone. They are the ever present but rarely noticed sentinels of the sentence. The grammatical traffic cops of wordsmithery. Like the Beefeater guards at the Queen’s House, they carry out their ancient duties to bring order to the page in silent anonymity. Only when misplaced or otherwise abused do they draw attention to themselves.

So perhaps it’s no wonder that, like the Beefeaters, punctuation marks really don’t change much from year to year. Actually, they don’t even change much from century to century.

Think about this: in the last quarter of 2015 alone, the Oxford English Dictionary admitted 111 new word entries into its lexicon, including cisexism, gramps, locovore and tradeocracy (look ’em up).

Now, when was the last time you heard of anyone adding a new punctuation mark?

Yes, there have been some experimental hybrids, but most of them have failed outside the lab. When released into the real world, they were unable to sustain themselves and had to go on unemployment.

Think of the interrobang, for instance. You’ve never heard of it? Back in 1962, ad man Martin K. Speckter thought it would be useful to splice together a question mark with an exclamation point. Whaaaat?! Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time, I’m sure. Especially for advertising copy.

But, although it was incorporated into a few modern type fonts and, during the 1960s, was even included on some Remington and Smith-Corona typewriters (remember typewriters?), the interrobang is essentially homeless today. You might find one sleeping in the back alley of an obscure typeface, but it never really became a member of punctuation mark society.

Although not growing, that exclusive society has a stable population of marks that refuse to die. They may go into semi-retirement from time to time, but they never seem to be declared obsolete.

No, there’s no equivalent to the decommissioning of a word like quagswagging when it comes to punctuation marks. I can’t say I’ll miss quagswagging personally (it means to chatter, babble, talk idly or senselessly), because I’d never heard it before I found it in my search for abandoned words. Perhaps a year from now it will disappear altogether, even from the logophile websites. R.I.P., quagswagging.

My point is that language changes, evolves, responds to new developments in the world, such as globalization, technology and channels for communication. Take texting, for instance. Who had ever heard of SMS language (also known as textese) 15 years ago? As they say, DBEYR – but with the pace of change in lingo, it might be more apt to say Don’t Believe Anything You Can’t Read without a decoder or a teenager by your side.

But while all that’s been going on, punctuation marks seem to have remained exactly the same. Your commas, your question marks, your semicolons.

Wait!

Are there still semicolons? I’m trying to remember the last time I saw one.

Oh, right! It was in a winky smiley 😉

These textual emoticons looked for a while to be the last hope for modernization of the staid old stable of punctuation marks. Wildly creative usage of colons, parentheses, dashes and such, in fanciful combinations, sprang from the thumbs of smartphone users to cover the full spectrum of human emotions. Happiness, sadness, horror, playfulness, skepticism, boredom, and embarrassment.

It was like a punctuation mark party.

The stiff-upper-lip regiment of symbols had finally been freed from the constraints of their grammatical duties. And they went wild *\o/*

But alas, it may have been a short parole from guard duty. As soon as the punctuation marks became the life of the party, about a million techie designers began to churn out character sets of full-colour emoticons to replace them: facial expressions covering every nuance of emotion in every skin tone, clapping hands, devil faces, thumbs up, skulls, cats with hearts for eyes.

They made the lowly, home-made emoticons that were cobbled together from punctuation marks look like kindergarten stick figures 😦

(By the way, you can’t even represent emoticons the old-fashioned way using punctuation marks in a lot of current software – including WordPress; they are subjected to a kind of technological forced-retirement and automatically replaced with graphics.)

How long will it be before punctuation marks are once again relegated to enforcement of literary laws? Doing jobs like halting sentences. Or sentence fragments.

Once again, they’ll have to get their jollies by chastely separating independent clauses. Fastidious writers know that clauses can’t be trusted if left alone together in close proximity; they have a tendency to lose all control and become a run-on sentence.

Do punctuation marks question their lot in life?

Well, it probably does give them pause.

But once in a while (although it must be added that these occasions are becoming rarer), they do get to declare their enthusiasm! Or surprise!

If you’re a writer, I have a request of you: please be kind to punctuation marks. After all, they’re senior citizens, so they deserve some respect.

You’ve probably noticed that some of them don’t get out much anymore. For instance, the semicolon is almost completely restricted to non-fiction these days, especially dry reports, academic papers and legal documents. They used to gambol across the pages of literature back in their glory days, but today they aren’t running with the artsy crowd.

The truth is, most punctuation marks don’t get to have much fun, unless they find themselves a poet, or perhaps an experimental novelist.

And the shameful problem of punctuation mark abuse has proliferated in recent times. Terrible things are being done to dashes, you might have noticed. Commas are often jammed into one overcrowded sentence with wanton disregard for their comfort. At the same time, lonely colons have been seen wandering the page, looking for something to do. Even editors have been charged and convicted of casual cruelty or neglect.

So the next time you’re at the keyboard, give a thought to the lives and livelihoods of punctuation marks. Be supportive. Remember they’re still coming down from that emoticon party and are likely to be a bit sensitive.

There’s more than one English

language-bubbles

Silk’s Post #122 — Is English the world’s viral language? It’s spoken by 400 million people as a first language, and by another 800 million as a second language. It’s the official language, by international treaty, for aeronautical and maritime communications. It’s the dominant language on the Internet (55% of top websites compared to less than 10% for the next most-used language). It’s the global language of international business, with one study by the British Council reporting that by 2020, two billion people will be studying it. Some have charged English with linguistic imperialism because of its impact on other languages, including language death.

How the language of a tiny nation-state with only .009% of the world’s current population became the lingua franca of the planet is a subject for history scholars. What I’m interested in is what English’s ungovernable spread and variation means to English language writers today.

It doesn’t take an English professor or student of linguistics to make this simple observation: the English language is a bit of a mess.

In its odyssey from the colonial era that spread it like a virus across the continents to its modern predominance, English has evolved in hundreds of different directions. Perhaps it is the language’s ability to mutate in Darwinian fashion that has made it the fittest survivor. It has adapted to different tongues and climes to become a whole family of variants, each unique but all (relatively) comprehensible to each other.

There is a movement to corral all these dialects, to reshape them to conform to a standard “International English,” also called “Global English” or (in one of the least elegant words ever coined in the language) “Globish.”

But good luck on that. Despite the best efforts of grammarians and lexicographers over the centuries, living languages love to defy rules the way children love to jump in mud puddles wearing their best shoes.

So, when an English speaking writer sits down to write a novel, it’s a fair question to ask: Which English will be used?

I don’t just mean the spelling difference between “colour” and “color” or “programme” and “program”. As an American-born writer transplanted to Canada 45 years ago, spelling variation has been a continuing hitch in my writing style, like a small limp. Canada, forever caught between the old world and the new world, has retained some aspects of the Queen’s English while adopting others from American usage. So: colour, not color. But program, not programme. You just have to memorize them, like the times tables. Then there are many Canadianisms – eh, hoser, pogey, zed, serviette, loonie, toonie, double-double, kerfuffle, give’r, and the picturesque fill your boots – which I now forget sound foreign to my friends in the US.

But those are more the punchlines of jokes about the difference between Canucks and Yanks than fundamental differences in culturally-specific syntax. Yet, real and profound differences do exist, and they are critical to the story world and voice of a book. Because when people talk differently, they also think differently. See differently. Even act differently.

Language usage – whether narrative or dialogue – telegraphs the world view on which the story is built, reveals setting and social structure, hints at history and backstory, conveys lifestyle and belief systems, and sets the pace and mood of the book.

Sometimes it’s stylistically obvious, like the antiquated language of a historical novel, the dialect of an ethnic or cultural group, or the street slang of an underclass. All these are harder to do than they seem, the most common mistake being a heavy hand. The natural voice in the reader’s head is likely to “speak” in relatively standard English, and readers can get annoyed or exhausted when continually forced to interpret a “foreign” language. If they have to keep stopping to figure out what the patois means, you’ve gone too far and they’ve probably already escaped to water their geraniums or turn on their TV.

Sometimes, however, it’s the subtle shading of English usage that creates a unique and vivid theatre of the mind. These are the books that transport readers and make them feel they’ve slid into a different, memorable, world. A world where they’re both a visitor and a native at the same time. These are the stories that make readers say I felt like I was right there.

It’s easy to assume that this is achieved mostly through skillful description and those telling details the writing books try to teach. But a lot of it is how the writer uses language.

I think of the languid pacing and reflective mood that characterize many of the best novels set in the South, for instance. There’s a kind of underlying nostalgia, a sense of past days of glory contrasted with the humid dissolution of the present, that colours stories by authors like William Faulkner, Pat Conroy or James Lee Burke. You can hear it in language that flows like slow beads of sweat on a hot day. In Gillian Flynn’s spectacularly successful Gone Girl, the change in mood from the fast-paced New York setting to the drowsy Missouri small town where the characters’ world comes apart is subtly enhanced by the shifting texture of the language the writer chooses, like a suit of clothes, for each place.

Or think about the indelible mark left on modern literature by the revolutionary use of language introduced by the “hard boiled” detective story. Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett – and later natural successors like Mickey Spillane, Walter Mosley and Elmore Leonard – crafted a whole genre that was characterized as much by its spare, brutal use of language as by its subject matter.

Am I really just talking about style? Well, maybe. That’s a big term and it covers a lot of territory. But I do think the mutations that have allowed the English language to adapt to different cultures, and different perceptions of reality, may go deeper than the term “style” might suggest. When does the elasticity of English stretch beyond its “standard” form and spawn truly distinct versions? Versions one needs to be conversant in to truly understand the stories of its speakers?

Imagine, for instance, a conversation between an English professor at Eton and a Chicago hip-hop street dancer. Are they really speaking the same language at all? Could they carry on any sort of meaningful conversation? I realize that such a scenario in a novel is, well, remote at best. It sounds more like a comedy sketch. But some of the best storytelling happens when people from “worlds apart” get smashed together on the page.

Telling stories like that – even when the language contrast is more subtle – is the job of the writer-as-translator.

So, be deliberate when you pick your language from the many Englishes that exist.

Or drive the language police nuts, and make up your own!

“15 Things a Writer Should Never Do”

Joe’s Post #36 — Busy reading 5/5/5 books. Just finished the first one. Three more to go. So, with no writing being done (a big mistake on my part) and no agents demanding to read the most amazing novel of all time, let’s look at a cool article from WD.

From Writer’s Digest. By Zak Petit (my comments are below his)

Based on interviews with authors over the years, conferences, editing dozens of issues of Writer’s Digest, and my own occasional literary forays and flails, here are some points of consensus and observations: 15 of them, things anyone who lives by the pen (or seeks to) might consider. It is, like most things in the writing world, a list in progress—and if you’ve got your own Dos or Don’ts to add, I’d love to hear them in the Comments.

1. Don’t assume there is any single path or playbook writers need to follow. (Or, for that matter, a definitive superlative list of Dos and Don’ts …) Simply put: You have to do what works best for you. Listen to the voices in your head, and learn to train and trust them. More often than not, they’ll let you know if you’re on the right path. People often bemoan the surplus of contradictory advice in the writing world—but it’s there because there really is no yellow-brick road, and a diversity of perspectives allows you to cherry-pick what uniquely suits you and your abilities.

— Oh how many times in how many ways has everyone heard the ‘You can’t’ litany. You can’t write in first and third person. You can’t write a book about S&M sex. You can’t write in crayon and send it to an agent with a lock of your own hair (ok, that one may be true.) But seriously, the moment anyone tells you you can’t do something, I guarantee there is someone who did. And got published.

2. Don’t try to write like your idols. Be yourself. Yeah, it sounds a bit cheesy, but it’s true: The one thing you’ve got that no one else does is your own voice, your own style, your own approach. Use it. (If you try to pretend to write like anyone else, your readers will know.) Perhaps author Allegra Goodman said it best: “Know your literary tradition, savor it, steal from it, but when you sit down to write, forget about worshiping greatness and fetishizing masterpieces.”

— In the end, we all write stories in our own unique way. I love that I can write in a YA style, a noir style and a rich fantasy world style. But they are all still me.

3. Don’t get too swept up in debates about outlining/not outlining, whether or not you should write what you know, whether or not you should edit as you go along or at the end—again, just experiment and do what works best for you. The freedom that comes with embracing this approach is downright cathartic.

— Exactly. What works for one, may not work for another. Both have advantages and disadvantages. Me, I have sticky-notes attached to sticky-notes attached to walls, lamps, a mind map and sometimes my shoe. Hey, it’s my way and it mostly works.

4. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket when it comes to pitching something—always be working on your next book or idea while you’re querying. Keeping your creative side in gear while focusing on the business of selling your work prevents bigger stalls in your writing life down the road.

— This is a lesson I needed to relearn. Had I to do it all over again, I would start another novel right after finishing the YA one in 5 months. As soon as I finish with the June critique, I’ll rework the YA story then start a new one.

5. Don’t be unnecessarily dishonest, rude, hostile—people in the publishing industry talk, and word spreads about who’s great to work with, and who’s not. Publishing is a big business, but it’s a pretty incestuous business. Keep those family reunions gossip free.

— Treat them like you’d treat your family. Ok, maybe not your family because of that time your brother borrowed your car and got drunk and threw up in the tape player and then stuffed your favourite David Bowie mix tape in there and that tape took forever to make and… well, you get the idea. Me, I treat them like I hope they would treat me one day.

6. Don’t ever hate someone for the feedback they give you. No piece of writing is universally beloved. Nearly every beta reader, editor or agent will have a different opinion of your work, and there’s value in that. Accept what nuggets you believe are valid, recognize the recurring issues you might want/need to address, and toss the edits your gut tells to toss. (Unless the changes are mandatory for a deal—in which case you’ll need to do some deeper soul searching.) Be open to criticism—it will make you a better writer.

— I dunno about this one. I heard feedback from one agent given to another writer, not me, no really, not me, but he said, “Your writing isn’t professional.” Ok, what are you supposed to do with that? It’s just too vague, dismissive and somewhat mean-spirited to be of any value. But if you ever get a professional in the business to give you some constructive feedback, not matter how hard it is to hear, give it a good go around in your head and see if it could help.

7. … But, don’t be susceptible to the barbs of online trolls—you know, those people who post sociopathic comments for the sake of posting sociopathic comments. That’s what trolls do: they troll (on Amazon, Goodreads, Twitter, etc.). It’s not personal. Which means the message at the core of their words means as little as the 0s and 1s used to code it. Ignore them heartily.

Oh those trolls. Good lord. Find a way to ignore them.

8. Don’t ever lower you guard when it comes to the basics: Good spelling, healthy mechanics, sound grammar. They are the foundations that keep our writing houses from imploding … and our queries from hitting the recycling bin before our stories can speak for themselves.

— Amen!

9. Don’t ever write something in an attempt to satisfy a market trend and make a quick buck. By the time such a book is ready to go, the trend will likely have passed. The astronomical amount of romantic teenage vampire novels in desk drawers is more than a nuisance—it’s a wildfire hazard. Write the story that gives you insomnia.

— What, no vampire-zombie dystopia novels with bow-wielding heroines? I could write one, you know, I really could.

10. Don’t be spiteful about another writer’s success. Celebrate it. As author Amy Sue Nathan recalled when detailing her path to publication in the upcoming July/August 2013 issue of WD: “Writers I knew were landing book deals and experiencing other things I was working toward, so I made a decision to learn from them instead of begrudging them. I learned that another author’s success doesn’t infringe on mine.”

— Honestly, it’s other people’s successes that keep me going.

11. Don’t ever assume it’s easy. Writers with one book on shelves or one story in print often had to keep stacking up unpublished manuscripts until they could reach the publisher’s doorbell. (The exception being those lucky 19-year-old savants you sometimes hear about, or, say, Snooki. But, hey, success still isn’t guaranteed—after all, Snooki’s Gorilla Beach: A Novel has only sold 3,445 copies.) Success is one of those things that’s often damn near impossible to accurately predict unless you already have it in spades.

— Hey, it’s not easy. I’m not Snooki.

12. Don’t forget to get out once in a while. Writing is a reflection of real life. It’s all too easy to sit too long at that desk and forget to live it.

— Wait? What? Writing is a reflection of real life? It better not be because that would mean I need to write a book about napping on the couch, going to the bathroom, eating a hamburger over the sink or hunting for lint in my belly button.

13. Don’t ever discount the sheer teaching power (and therapeutic goodness) of a great read. The makeshift MFA program of countless writers has been a well-stocked bookshelf.

— OMG so true. Next week, I’m going to post about the openings to some of my favourite books.

14. Don’t be afraid to give up … on a particular piece. Sometimes, a story just doesn’t work, and you shouldn’t spend years languishing on something you just can’t fix. (After all, you can always come back to it later, right?)

— Yup, some of the novels I’ve written will remain in a sealed vault beneath my hot water tank. They were practice novels. Nothing more. And any rumors that one of those books is the great american novel that combines the explosive sexuality of 50 shades with the character depth of Game of Thrones and the gut-splitting humor of Douglas Adams should not be believed.

15. But, don’t ever really give up. Writers write. It’s what we do. It’s what we have to do. Sure, we can all say over a half-empty bottle of wine that we’re going to throw the towel in this time, but let’s be honest: Very few of us ever do. And none of us are ever really all that surprised when we find ourselves back at our computers, tapping away, and waiting for that electric, amazing moment when the pebble of a story shakes loose and begins to skitter down that great hill …

— I can’t. 

I write therefore I am.

Thanks to Writer’s Digest and Zachary Petit for inspiring this.

How to get rejected in 5 easy pages

rejection-lottery

Silk’s Post #31 — Are you ready to face your greatest fear? The monster under the bed? The thing that makes you break out in a cold sweat?

Okay. Let’s talk about rejection. You’ll feel better, I promise.

When the 5 writers convene our retreat to do our whole-book critiques (which I’ve taken to calling “5 writers critter week”), we will be commenting on all aspects of each other’s books. Characters. Setting. Plot and structure. Style. Ending.

But one of the most important things we’ll be talking about – from the perspective of as-yet unpublished writers who need to (literally) break into the business – is the beginning of each book. Those first few pages that an agent or editor will evaluate to determine whether to immediately discard the manuscript … or read on.

To give the most useful feedback possible on the magic first five pages, we will have to put ourselves in the shoes of an agent or editor. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. We 5 writers care about each other, and about each other’s books. The agent or editor does not.

Imagine slogging through dozens, hundreds, thousands of manuscripts. One after another after another. Looking for that rarest of prizes: the potential bestseller written by somebody that no one’s ever heard of. This is what agents and editors do every day. It must be like sifting through a bale of hay … or a whole barn full of hay … searching for a diamond ring. One thing you’d quickly learn is that you can vastly increase your chances of finding that diamond if you can sift through more hay faster.

first-5-pagesIt’s that mindset we writers have to understand. Fortunately, there are a number of good references to help us do that – agents’ websites that give great query tips, hints from successful authors, and books by agents that are rich with advice. One of the most useful of these is The First Five Pages by New York literary agent Noah Lukeman. Here’s what he says about the gatekeepers’ mindset:

“Agents and editors don’t read manuscripts to enjoy them; they read solely with the goal of getting through the pile, solely with an eye to dismiss a manuscript – and believe me, they’ll look for any reason they can, down to the last letter.”

It’s that simple, and that brutal. Yikes.

To someone who’s struggled through the process of writing – and rewriting, and re-rewriting  – a 400-page novel, it may seem unfair that it will be judged worthy or unworthy on the basis of just the first one percent of those pages. It makes the process seem like a lottery. Yet Lukeman insists that it is “not a wild assumption” to conclude that:

“… if you find one line of extraneous dialogue on page 1, you will likely find one line of extraneous dialogue on each page to come.”

Isn’t this like getting flunked on a technicality? What about our incredibly engaging plot? Our vivid, complex characters? Our haunting, unforgettable setting? Surely these things can’t be assessed on the basis of the first five pages. No. They can’t. That’s exactly the point. These strengths we think our book possesses will never be discovered if we can’t convince the agent or editor to turn to page 6.

But before you give up and switch from writing to something easier, like brain surgery or rocket science, consider that these gatekeepers’ “snap” judgements may not be as arbitrary and petty as they sound. Lukeman says:

“… I’ve read thousands of manuscripts, all, unbelievably, with the exact same types of mistakes. From Texas to Oklahoma to California to England to Japan, writers are doing the exact same things wrong.”

So the key, according to him, is to avoid early and obvious errors that give the agent or editor an excuse to stop reading before they get to the good part.

But what exactly are these errors? After studying the advice of Lukeman and others, I have been inspired to follow in the tradition of literary advice-givers by preparing a list of rules. I offer the following helpful prescription for failure, which I urge you not to follow.

Silk’s “Sweet 16” Rules for Almost Guaranteed Rejection

  1. When submitting a query, don’t follow presentation and submission guidelines exactly. Do you really want your manuscript to seem like every other manuscript? Make it stand out and show your individuality and creativity by breaking a few rules.
  2. In your presentation, be sure to impress the agent or editor with your mastery of big words and clever use of foreign phrases. This makes you seem smart and worldly. Extra points if you can force the agent to consult a dictionary.
  3. Pay no mind to the old wives’ tales about clichés. Clichés are the spice of life. Make sure to work some into the first five pages.
  4. Don’t forget to make liberal use of adverbs and adjectives. These clearly and engagingly make your writing all the richer and more enticingly, deliciously entertaining. Remember, every plain verb or noun is just crying out for colourful, descriptive decoration.
  5. Be sure to include sufficient backstory early in the book. You might as well get the painfully boring part over with as quickly as possible, like pulling off a Band-Aid. A few paragraphs of straight narrative is one efficient way to get the reader up to speed. Or stick it in a Prologue.
  6. Nothing makes a first impression more dramatically than an opening scene with lots of blood and gore, blue language and explicit sex. If you can work all these into the first five pages, you’ve hit the Trifecta! Why save the exciting parts for later?
  7. If you want the reader to really pay attention to a sentence, be sure to end it with an exclamation point! Or two!! How are they supposed to know you’re telling them something important?!
  8. Want to introduce doubt, mystery and intrigue into your story right from the beginning? Writers often wonder about this? Here’s a simple and effective way to do it: insert lots of question marks. This really makes readers think.
  9. Don’t waste your time, fussing with punctuation nor spelling; and other archaic grammer rules; as their probably all just going to get changed by some editor after you get you’re book contract, anyway so let the editor’s do there jobs!
  10. An apt metaphor is a sparkling diamond lying supine in the belly button of your novel. A novel without enough metaphors and similes is like a cold, empty Walmart warehouse where the golden links of the supply chain have tragically broken and the shelves are bereft of toys and rubber flip flops.
  11. It’s your book and you should make the reader aware of your presence as a writer right from the get go. This is your place to show off your talent, so indulge yourself and don’t let the story get in the way of your creativity with words. You want your special “voice” to be noticed, so don’t be shy about drawing attention to yourself.
  12. Don’t take the risk of an important concept or plot point getting lost. Make sure the reader “gets” it by saying it several times in slightly different words.
  13. Creative use of dialogue is one of the easiest ways to impress an agent or editor. Several pages of uninterrupted, rapid-fire dialogue, using short sentences and fragments, for instance, is sure to be noticed, especially in the first five pages.
  14. When using attributors in dialogue, choose a variety of verbs and evocative adverbs – such as “she tearfully exclaimed” or “he angrily ejaculated” – in preference to the dull volley of “he said-she said.”
  15. Dialogue is an entertaining way to deliver large chunks of backstory, or tell other facts that are hard to “show.” By disguising the information as “natural” conversation, you can cleverly use your characters to speak for you by proxy.
  16. Use of dialect and slang in dialogue adds spice and authenticity. “Thass cane, innit? A and B the C of D!” is far more colourful, for example, than “That’s excessive, don’t you think? Above and beyond the call of duty!” This kind of dialogue keeps readers and agents right where you want them: guessing.

I wish you the best of luck in boosting your approval ratings by not doing any of this!

A book critique

Joe’s Post #28 — Without a doubt, this retreat critique will be the most challenging one we’ve ever done. We’ll be looking at a whole book and that’s quite a lot to look at, read through, critique, comment on, then, at least in my case, remember what you’ve just done. In the past, we’ve done 30 pages a time. Pretty easy to get to everyone in a time span from about coffee cake time to high-tea snack time.

A whole novel, though. 400-500 pages. In 8 hours. Wow. That’s an undertaking.

So here’s a few things we’ve learned from all our critique sessions.  The first part will be this week. The second part, next week.

First up.

IMG_11951) Breaks are important. It may seem like it’s a good idea to power through the time together and pound out critique after critique after critique, but the truth is, the longer we go, the more rushed we become and that does a disservice to the writer. So we’ll have to find a way to break up the whole day with yummy and somewhat fattening foods, maybe a wee walk, and certainly lots of coffee. As well, we’ll have to set up a space for the critiquing and when we’re on a break, we’ll need to walk away from that space. If we can manage that, IF, then every writer should be able to get maximum value from the session.

2) We can’t get distracted. Oh, boy. Can we get distracted. Often many fascinating topics come in the submissions. Talking about Hawaii before the attack on Pearl Harbour. France in the 1970s. Bridge construction. French memories of the construction of a bridge in Hawaii. And then there’s the writing subjects like voice and grammar and outlining and character arcs and sagging middles and the overuse of the word ‘and’ in some sentences. Oh, yes, we are a well-read and opinionated group and that makes for a huge distraction pitfall. If we give in to our intellectual temptations and wander into the wilderness of cool ideas and interesting topics, we’re doomed. So, this time, one of the worst gabby sinners will be moderating the discussion to make sure we stay focused. Me. God help us.

3) Don’t Dig Too Deep. When we’re looking at 30 pages, it’s easy to take time to mention the odd wrong word choice, or verb tenses or dropped punctuation or when a character entered a room wearing a red shirt that says, spank me and no one in the room comments, but we won’t have time for that. It’ll be a whole different level of critiquing. Not ‘in the trenches’ but ‘flying high above them’. It’ll be hard. I’ll want to comment on that red shirt, I will. It’ll be like a need to scratch something I shouldn’t scratch in public. The temptation will be there, especially if I think I can make a funny comment and I want everyone to hear it. But I’ll be strong. We’ll focus on what makes a good story. Character. Setting. Plot.

And that’s for starters. Next week, the other, even more difficult things.

As for me, since I’ve written the novel that everyone will be looking at, I’m going to get my head out of my ass and refocus as well. Queries, boys and girls, queries. Yesterday, I finished hammering out a 1 page synopsis. Damn that was hard. I kept thinking, oh but what about this character and that scene and this plot twist and that cool them? I simply couldn’t keep them all. But I got it done.

Today I sat down and found a few more agents.

Goal for next week. 10 queries. Easy, right?

I miss the exclamation point!

exclamation-pointSilk’s post #23 — No one ever seems to talk about punctuation anymore. Once upon a time, students were forced to diagram sentences – an exercise as exciting as algebra, and just about as relevant to the enjoyment of literature. Sentences were to be taught to behave, like errant schoolboys.

Now, despite an entertaining selection of modern books dedicated to preserving some semblance of grammatical purity, advertising-speak and email have pretty well demolished punctuational discipline forever.

Nevertheless, I love Lynne Truss’s sensible definition of punctuation in her surprising bestseller Eats Shoots & Leavessubtitled “The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation:”

“Best of all, I think, is the simple advice given by the style book of a national newspaper: that punctuation is ‘a courtesy designed to help readers to understand a story without stumbling.’ Isn’t the analogy with good manners perfect? Truly good manners are invisible: they ease the way for others, without drawing attention to themselves. … As we shall see, the practice of ‘pointing’ our writing has always been offered in a spirit of helpfulness, to underline meaning and prevent awkward misunderstandings between writer and reader.”

It has often been pointed out that poor use of punctuation is one of the quickest ways to recognize awful – or at least sloppy – writing. My heart goes out to all the editors of the world who labour to round up herds of squiggles rampaging across the manuscripts before them, and coax them into the punctuation corral. So, to give myself a break from the hard work of writing an actual book, I’m going to do a little series of blog posts on punctuation – just for pure amusement.

My first topic is a eulogy, of sorts, for the dear, departed exclamation mark (or point). I miss it! Don’t you? Just a little bit?

It started out life with so much promise, or so the theory goes, back in the days when Latin was a spoken language. It was an expression of joy, intended to connote wonderment and admiration. How far the poor thing has fallen!

The exclamation point didn’t earn its own dedicated typewriter key until the 1970s. Before that, you had to type a period, then backspace, then type a straight apostrophe over top of the period. I’m old enough to remember actually having to do this. I certainly used fewer exclamation points as a result. It’s my theory that the seeds of the exclamation point’s demise began with this mechanical advancement in typography.

Easy keyboard access to “!!!!!” proliferated its use. Like a drug.

By the 1980s, the exclamation point was becoming ubiquitous, and in the 1986 edition of The Elements of Grammar by Margaret Shertzer (a companion to the better-known The Elements of Style by Strunk and White), six rules for its use are prescribed:

  1. Use an exclamation point to mark an exclamatory word, phrase or sentence.
  2. If the whole sentence is exclamatory in form, place an exclamation point at the end.
  3. Use an exclamation point at the end of sentences that are interrogatory in form but exclamatory in meaning.
  4. When an exclamation is not emphatic, place a comma instead of an exclamation point after it. (Note: this is the only ‘rule’ that advises discretion in its use)
  5. Use an exclamation point to express irony, surprise and dissension.
  6. An exclamation point is used after a command.

Today, many style guides have virtually reduced the rules for use to one: don’t. 

Even Wikipedia’s advice on usage warns, “Overly frequent use of the exclamation mark is generally considered poor writing, for it distracts the reader and devalues the mark’s significance.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote, “Cut out all those exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own jokes.” If he’d followed Margaret Shertzer’s rules, though, he would have written the first sentence as a command, with an exclamation point at the end of it.

In Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writingthe master of direct, pared-down writing advises:

“Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.”

In their hilarious book How Not to Write a Novel, subtitled “200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid them – A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide,” authors Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman wrote a whole section titled “I Mean This!! It’s Important!!!” to illustrate their advice about the exclamation point, which they describe as a graphical poke in the eye:

“The exclamation mark is the most commonly abused form of punctuation. While commas, often appear, randomly in unpublished manuscripts—and there is an epidemic—of unnecessary—em-dashes, it is the exclamation mark which takes the most punishment. 

“We understand that you are excited to be a novelist, but there are very few occasions when you should use an exclamation mark, and all of them are in dialogue. Even here they should be used sparingly, usually to indicate that a character is in fact shouting. … [With the frequent use of exclamation marks] the writing appears to be engaged in frantic hand-waving, straining every muscle to convince the reader that the action is important.”

If you really want to hear an editor rant about it, read this post by Erin Roof titled “Say no to exclamation points” on her interesting blog Grammar Party.

Need I say that literary agents also hate exclamation points? Almost nothing seems to curl their lips faster than encountering one on the page as they’re reading a few paragraphs of your manuscript – right in front of you – in a speed-date pitch at a writers conference. Just throw one at the end of an early sentence and then watch their faces. They won’t even say anything, but you know. You just know. That strained don’t-call-me-I’ll-call-you look they give you is very likely a reaction to having been stabbed in the eye by an exclamation point.

Yes, the punctuation mark that began as an innocent and innovative expression of wonder has become the most reviled squiggle in literature. The hallmark of the amateur, the hack. Ridiculed by crude nicknames like a screamer, a gasper, a startler, a bang and a shriek.

And now it’s dead, chased from the page by literary do-gooders.

It’s sad. I know the exclamation point had its shortcomings and quirks – like all of us – but it was always a friend to me. It added a bit of a smile to electronic conversations (“Hi folks!” or “See ya later!”), and a little kick to the dramatic literature of yore (“As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!”).

I will miss it!! Really!!!

But wait. Is it too soon to write an epitaph for the exclamation point? Perhaps I’ll let Fyodor Dostoyevsky have the last word. He’d like that. This quote cited in Good Advice on Writing by William Safire and Leonard Safir sounds like Fyodor chewing out his editor:

“Every author has his own style and consequently his own grammatical rules. I put commas where I deem them necessary, and where I deem them unnecessary others must not put them! [And] remember that I never use superfluous commas: Never add or remove a single one!”

Take that, agents, editors and writing advice-givers everywhere!

I probably should have saved that quote for my future post about commas, but I couldn’t resist quoting Dostoyevsky’s use of exclamation points.

Why so serious?

Joe’s Post #17 — Ok, so it’s been a tough couple of weeks. Lost material. Cold. Blah, blah, blah. Time for some fun.

spamFor some reason I don’t completely understand, our beloved blog has been splooged by spam. Yesterday alone, I deleted 76 spam messages. I’m not sure what we did to deserve such attention, but I thought I’d share some of the spam with you all. For the record, not a single word or comma has been changed.

“so theyre sending i pot-dealing WoW player to prisonWay to continue, Johnny Law, thats about as harmless while he come.” Ok, wft? I mean, seriously, wtf?

“Right affinity foresees the requirements of other sorts of in lieu of glorify its personalized.” Sounds like a very bad google translation of something profound.

 “Bliss could be a essence you should not strain found on many and it doesn’t involve purchasing a variety of declines found on you and your family.”  Painful, just painful.

 “don’t want millions of people to see me in a bikini anyway. ” I loved this one, but then, what did it have to do with anything we’ve ever written? Still, it’s better english than some of the others.

“He was the top-winning Affenpinscher for several years. So the two frogs went to Mississippi River to look for Odie mother-in-law, which ask her to help untie the spell both of them.” It’s almost like I came in the middle of a conversation. But now I kinda want to know about Odie and the frogs.

“Never ever grimace, although the majority of a person is sad, to create do not no that is going down obsessed about a satisfaction.” Now, to be fair, I’ve said very similar things after two glasses of absinthe.

“hey, i like your valuable article in which you have described very well with point wise.” Me too.

“Its possibility are so fantastic not to mention working pattern so effective.” I know, right?

“cialis levitra ou viagra”  Ok, how in the world did we start getting french viagra ads?

“so informative site! big thanks!” Hey, no problem, you’re welcome, I think.

“Thank you for any other magnificent post. The place else could anybody get that kind of information in such a perfect manner of writing? I’ve a presentation next week, and I am on the look for such information.” Right, then, my advice, if you have a presentation, put down the rolled dollar bill, shovel the coke back into the bag and get some sleep.

“you need time to create that interesting and additionally real effort to make such a good article.” Truer words were never said. No I mean, it. NEVER.

“I cnduot bvleiee taht I culod aulaclty uesdtannrd waht I was rdnaieg. Unisg the icndeblire pweor of the hmuan mnid, aocdcrnig to rseecrah at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dsenot mttaer in waht oderr the lterets in a wrod are, the olny irpoamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rhgit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it whoutit a pboerlm. Tihs is bucseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey ltteer by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Aaznmig, huh? Yaeh and I awlyas tghhuot slelinpg was ipmorantt! See if yuor fdreins can raed tihs too.” Now this was totally intersesting as I could actually read this and I wasn’t completely drunk at the time.

However, some of the spammers actually spoke (or knew how to write) english. Here are some of the more generic ones:

“great website. thank you for the info. cheers!” Thanks, but I will still not buy your Gucci bags.

“that was nice to know about.” thanks. *delete*

“your post is really informative for me. i liked it very much. keep sharing such important posts.” Oh, we will, we will. You can’t shut us up now even if you wanted.

“excellent article , covers a lot of ground i’ve found a great article. Thanks”  Oh, so close, but a swing and a miss.

thanks for taking your time to explain that, i bet everyone likes your articles. You know what, I do, too.

So now, I look for those odd spamisms. I’ve even come to like them. “Me want can’t do like article you.” It almost makes sense. It’s so close to actually being something. Like me making a curry. It wants to be a curry, it almost looks like curry but boy, did I bugger something up along the way.

A part of me wants to spam back. Write something in english, translate it to french, then translate it to arabic, then translate it chinese then back to english again. I wonder what would happen.

Now let us all sing together. Spam, spam, spam spam spam spam spam,

Pages Rewritten: 102

Turkey Dinners: Still 0

Backups Done: 3 every day (sometimes more.) Save. Save to flash. Save to email and send.

Movie Seen This Week: Les Miserables. Freaking brilliant.