Back again. This is the second part of a two-column discussion about the craft of writing and the so-called "rules" writers should follow. Last Saturday's post featured some of the things I think writers should NOT do, plus a few of my own pet (and petty?) peeves. Today's column will cover, in no particular order, things I think we SHOULD do when we write fiction and submit it for publication. Especially short fiction, since that's the kind of storytelling I do most.
- Do hyphenate most multiple-word adjectives. Easy-to-read story, locked-room mystery, one-horse town, three-alarm fire, elementary-school teacher, child-abuse center, out-of-town guest. This streamlines your story and, yes, makes it easier to read. Sometimes it even provides clarity. Unhyphenated, high school age students could be taken the wrong way.
- Do put the most important part of a sentence at the end of the sentence. The tornado caused extensive damage, numerous injuries, and several deaths. (Passable: The monster was standing in the weeds at the edge of the woods. Better: Standing there in the weeds, at the edge of the woods, was the monster.)
- Do make your verbs agree with your subjects. That stack of books is in my way. Neither Joe nor Mary is going to the party. Here are your instructions. Ten years is a long time. My macaroni and cheese was delicious.
- Do use parallel structure when items are in a series. Wrong: You can relax in our sauna, the lounge, or by the pool. Right: You can relax in our sauna, in the lounge, or by the pool. Passable: I like hunting, fishing, and movies. Better: I like hunting, fishing, and watching movies.
- Do include an s after the apostrophe with most possessives ending in s. Ross's truck, Mr. Sims's house, Ms. Jones's refrigerator, Colonel Sanders's fried chicken. Don't include the extra s when the word following it begins with an s. Colonel Sanders' secret recipe.
- Do choose a or an based on pronunciation, not spelling. An hour and a half, an umbrella, a European vacation, an MBA, a uniform, an SASE.
The only people who came to the meeting were two snooty ladies, my wife, and her sister . . . means there were four attendees.
The only people who came to the meeting were two snooty ladies, my wife and her sister . . . means there were two attendees.
- Do make sure those leading apostrophes for things like 'em, 'tis, 'twas, 'course, '90s, etc., are "curved in the right direction." MS Word tends to aim those the wrong way, and you can fix this problem by typing an extra letter just before the word, typing the apostrophe, and then deleting that letter. That's bassackwards, but it's a good workaround.
- Do use a dash--not ellipses--to indicate interrupted speech. Ellipses suggest a hesitation, or a gradual fade to silence. (I like interrupting my characters because it happens so often in real life, especially in tense situations.) "What exactly do you--" "You know very well what I mean." "Now, wait just a min--" "No, YOU wait a minute."
- Do use an ampersand in certain company names and abbreviations, but not in usual writing. Spell out the word and instead. Correct uses of ampersands: B&O Railroad, AT&T, Tiffany & Co., R&D, Q&A, B&B.
- Do use commas correctly with names and titles. Grammatically correct: My friend, Tom, is retiring tomorrow. Also correct: My friend Tom is retiring tomorrow. I prefer the second sentence; in the first, the commas surrounding the name are acceptable but needless (and might even imply that you have only one friend). INcorrect examples: My friend, Tom is retiring tomorrow. My friend Tom, is retiring tomorrow. Also incorrect: Author, Lucy Cooper will speak to our book club next month. I actually saw that one recently, in a Facebook post.
- Do feel free to capitalize the first word of a complete sentence following a colon, depending on the desired impact of that second sentence. The verdict is in: No more stimulus payments. If no added emphasis is needed, leave it uncapitalized. My brother worked hard last night: he dreamed up a story in his easy chair.
- Do feel free to use the word till instead of until, as in I'll be there from noon till three. To me, it's far better than the odd-looking 'til.
- Do use T-shirt instead of tee-shirt. An editor told me the way she remembers this: when you hold the shirt up to look at it, it's in the shape of a T.
- Do remember the difference between convince and persuade. Convince means to cause a person to believe something; persuade means to cause a person to do something. (One involves thought; the other involves action.) I convinced my sister of the importance of social distancing. Helen persuaded her husband to wear a mask.
- Do capitalize the first word in a title and all other words except short prepositions, short conjunctions, and articles. (Short usually means three letters or fewer, although some sources say four letters or fewer). The Day After Tomorrow, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Flowers for Algernon, Of Mice and Men, Gone With the Wind. I opted for the "four or fewer" rule when I submitted my short story "On the Road with Mary Jo" because I thought a lowercase with looked better there.
- Do use italics for the titles of books, novels, novellas, plays, albums, movies, TV shows, newspapers, and magazines.
- Do use quotation marks for the titles of short stories, poems, articles, book chapters, TV episodes, and songs.
- Do put periods and commas inside closing quotation marks--even if you're also using single quotes within double quotes. "I want to re-read Shirley Jackson's 'The Lottery,'" Jane said. The British put their periods and commas outside the closing marks.
- Do put a question mark outside closing quotation marks if whatever's inside the quotes (a song title, say) isn't a question in itself. Jack asked, "Do you like the song 'Good Vibrations'?" Sue said, "I prefer 'Wouldn't It Be Nice?'" (Note that the question mark ends that second sentence even though the sentence is not a question. There's no additional period.)
- Do use may to imply permission and might to imply a choice. Billy may go to the dance means his mom said it's okay. Billy might go to the dance means he hasn't decided.
- Do use a.m. and p.m. to indicate time. Also acceptable are AM and PM, though I prefer the lowercase letters and the periods.
- Do use combined words like everyday and anymore correctly. The first is an adjective; the second is an adverb. Bob comes home from work every day and puts on his everyday shoes. Since you don't live here anymore, I don't plan to cook you any more meals.
- Do use blond as an adjective and blonde as a noun. The blonde had blond hair. (Blond can also be a noun if you're talking about a male, though I've rarely seen it used that way.) Feel free to disagree--it won't bother me a bit--and if you simply must use blonde as an adjective, use it in reference to a woman.
- Do use sensory input in your story wherever possible. Have your characters hear, feel, touch, taste, and smell things around them. This isn't something that comes naturally to me, so when rewriting I try to make sure I've included it.
- Do use little "beats" of action in scenes. He scratched his beard, she drummed her fingers on the desktop, he shifted in his seat. They let the reader picture what's happening, they allow you to vary the rhythm of the dialogue, they can help reveal a character's appearance or personality, and they can help identify who's speaking without the need for a dialogue attribute. If you insert one of these beats between two lines of the same speaker's dialogue, you can even use it to change the subject in the middle of a paragraph. "I don't want to talk about this anymore." Jenny leaned her head against the passenger-side window. "Turn here, this is my street."
- Do choose as your POV character the person who will most likely learn the most and/or be impacted the most by what happens in the story. The POV character does not have to be the title character or even the main protagonist. Reference The Great Gatsby, Shane, To Kill a Mockingbird, etc.
- Do provide details of physical description (if you absolutely must) via dialogue, or reveal it in bits and pieces. Avoid a missing-persons-report info-dump, and if it's a first-person POV story don't have your character stand in front of a mirror and tell the reader what she sees. That, except for the "it was all a dream" plot, might be the biggest land-mine a fiction writer can stumble onto.
- Do try to start your story with some kind of change. A divorce, a marriage, a death, a relocation, a meeting, a promotion, a firing, a financial windfall, a reunion, a diagnosis, an accident, a summons, a new opportunity, a contest win, a career change, an announcement, a phone call, a letter, a visitor, a stranger's arrival in town.
- Do try to identify the five W's--who, what, where, when, why--as soon as possible, in your story. In Hemingway's novella The Old Man and the Sea, this is the opening line: He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.
- Do consider giving your story a "circular ending," in which the character winds up in the same location as where he or she began. Examples: The Lord of the Rings, The Searchers, The Wizard of Oz, Unforgiven, Escape from New York, Lonesome Dove, many others.
- Do end your story as soon as possible after the point of highest tension. This was one of the late screenwriter William Goldman's strictest rules.
- Do create "gray" and relatable characters by giving your protagonist some bad qualities and your antagonist some good qualities.
- Do make your villain at least as powerful, and as motivated, as your hero or heroine. (Jack the Giant Killer needs a giant.) Always remember that it's the villain, not the protagonist, who drives the plot.
- Do give your characters appropriate names (when possible) that provide a clue to their personalities. Darth Vader, Stephanie Plum, Thomas Magnum, Draco Malfoy, Holly Golightly, Remington Steele, Frank Bullitt, Barney Fife, Luke Skywalker, Uriah Heep.
- Do consider giving your protagonist a spouse or friend or sidekick with whom to share information. And maybe even to add yet another level of conflict.
- Do convey emotions by "putting them on the body." Her jaw dropped, his heart thudded, her eyes widened, her throat tightened, his knees went weak.
- Do indicate dialect in your dialogue by word choices like Y'all grab them two shovels and carry 'em to the barn, or We don't got to show you no stinking badges or I have happy feeling about you come to visit (an actual email I once received before going to teach an IBM class in Manila). But be careful not to overuse misspellings--editors hate that.
- Do speed up the pace, if needed, by inserting either (1) dialogue, (2) shorter, choppy sentences, or (3) active voice.
- Do slow the pace, if needed, by inserting (1) description, (2) exposition, (3) longer, complex sentences, or (4) passive voice.
- Do include full contact info at the top left corner of the first page of your short-story manuscript: name, postal address, phone number, email address.
- Do put the wordcount of your story in the upper right corner of the first page. Either make it the exact wordcount--2785 words--or round to the nearest 100 and type about 2800 words.
- Do center your title and byline between a third of the way and halfway down the first page. I always put one double space between my title and "by John M. Floyd," and then I go down two more double spaces and start the text of the story. I also put the story title in all caps, although Shunn's guide says to use proper case.
- Do number all pages in your manuscript. I never use a footer, but I always put a header at the top right corner of every page except the first, as follows: Floyd / STORY NAME / page#.
- Do use your pseudonym, if you have one, as your byline and in the header of each manuscript page, but use your real name in the contact info on the first page.
- Do type a centered character of some kind--asterisk, pound-sign, etc.--as an indicator of a scene break, rather than just inserting an extra double-space. I learned this lesson when the published version of one of my stories left out a needed scene break. Now I always use a centered #, except in my book manuscripts, where my publisher prefers ***. My problem with three consecutive asterisks is that if you happen to hit RETURN immediately afterward, Word sometimes automatically inserts a whole line of asterisks and teleports you into Page-Break Hell, a place from which it is hard to escape. (Anyone else ever run into this?)
- Do space down three double-spaces and center the words THE END on the last page of your story. If these words wind up alone at the top of a page, go back to the first page and fiddle around with the vertical placement of the title and byline (move them up or down several spaces in that top third- or half-page) until the problem's fixed.
- Do include a cover letter with all submissions, unless instructed not to. If it's an electronic sub, your cover letter is in the body of your email or the text box provided in the online submission form.
- Do remember, in cover letters, etc., the difference between an anthology and a collection. An anthology is a book of stories by more than one author. A collection is a book of stories by the same author.
- Do include the editor's name in the salutation of your cover letter. Dear Ms. Anderson, Dear Mr. Price, etc. Don't just type Dear Editor or Dear Fiction Editor. If it's not clear whether the editor is male or female, include the entire name: Dear Lee Russell. Also, after the editor has responded to you using only your first name or only his or her first name, feel free to use the editor's first name in all correspondence.
NOTE, for writers of mystery short stories: Do include the apostrophe in the names Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. Editor Linda Landrigan says the official titles have apostrophes, although they are occasionally left out for design purposes on covers, etc.
Breaking the rules
- Do feel free to use comma splices (two complete sentences separated only by a comma) if/when needed. In dialogue a spliced comma can capture the exact rhythm of normal speech. It's best used when there's no pause at that point in the spoken piece. I don't care what Dad says, I'm going to the party. Hurry up and finish, I want to go eat. Take your time, I'm just looking. The wrong way to use a comma splice: We finally got home, Fred came over to visit.
- Do use sentence fragments when needed, whether it's in dialogue or not. Because I said it was. So I did. Which turned out for the best.
- Do use a split infinitive if it makes the sentence sound better. To boldly go where no man has gone before has a more pleasant rhythm than To go boldly where no man has gone before.
- Do feel free to use "who" instead of "whom" in informal writing, even when it's not grammatically correct. Sometimes whom just sounds too stiff and proper, especially in dialogue. Picture a ghostbusting service with the slogan Whom you gonna call?
- Do repeat a word once or more in a sentence if it makes more sense to do so. I once heard this called the Slender Yellow Fruit Syndrome. I was offered a banana and an orange, and I chose the slender yellow fruit. Better to just repeat the word banana.
- Do feel free to use multiple points of view in your short story. The often-heard advice to stick to one POV with shorts is not a requirement.
- Do use one-sentence paragraphs if needed. Their very isolation can increase their impact, and that's sometimes a powerful way to end a scene or a story.
- Do use very short scenes if needed, or short chapters in a novel.
- Do use a prologue if you want to. Sometimes renaming it Chapter One just doesn't work.
- Do open your story with a line of dialogue if you feel that's best, no matter what you've heard otherwise. Dialogue can be a great "hook," and is a good way to show, not tell.
- Do end your story with a twist, if you want. The surprise ending, if done well, is not as out-of-fashion as the critics would have you believe.
- Do leave out the question mark if a statement isn't really a question. "You're a jerk," she said. He replied, "Is that so." Editors often complain about this, but I've won most of those arguments. I happily substitute a period for the question mark if the spoken sentence doesn't lilt upward at the end, as it would if it were a question.
- Do use made-up words whenever needed (I love 'em). His head thunked against the pavement. The helicopter whopwhopwhopped through the night sky.
- Do feel free to start a sentence with a conjunction. Beginning a sentence with And or But can often help the flow of the narrative.Summary: Sometimes we just have to write what sounds right, regardless of the rules of grammar and style. To use another pop-culture example, try to imagine the Stones singing "I Can't Get Any Satisfaction."
An unresolved issue (is it a Do or a Don't?)
I have a question for all of you. What's your take on this sentence?
Everybody does their own thing.
This bothers me. The writer part of my brain says that should be Everybody does his or her own thing, or his/her own thing, etc., in order for the singular possessive to agree with the singular pronoun. But the practical side of me says, sweet jumpin jiminy, why create a stupid-sounding sentence just to satisfy the rules of grammar? Just say Everybody does their own thing and be done with it.
I've read and heard from many sources that this single-pronoun-single-possessive issue is one of those grammatical rules that has been so universally violated that the incorrect solution has now become acceptable (and certainly more convenient). But the old ways die hard. When I encounter it in the course of writing a story, I've found that I usually choose to reword the sentence to avoid having to make a decision. Something like Everybody take their seats often becomes Everybody sit down.
So the question is, should you be correct and thus overly wordy (or, if you just use his, politically insensitive)? Or should you give in and be grammatically incorrect and use the plural possessive? We all know our language evolves over time--one example is the way certain separated words have eventually become hyphenated words and have then become single words, the way on line morphed into on-line and then online. Has the everybody/their situation done the same kind of thing?
What's your opinion?
In closing . . .
I mentioned last week, in Part 1, that you should take these so-called rules with a grain (or maybe a whole shakerful) of salt. Different folks, different strokes. Another way of saying that:
Good teachers don't say "This is the way you do it." Good teachers say "This is the way I do it," and then let you decide for yourself.
I don't know if I'm a good teacher, but the above is the way I do it. As some of my fellow SleuthSayers are fond of pointing out, your mileage may vary.
Let me know what you think, about all this. See you in two weeks.