Showing posts with label writing rules. Show all posts
Showing posts with label writing rules. Show all posts

06 June 2020

Do's and Don'ts, Wills and Won'ts, Part 2





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.

Here we go.



Do's

- 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 use m-dashes instead of hyphens or n-dashes in your manuscript.

- Do include an s after the apostrophe with most possessives ending in sRoss's truck, Mr. Sims's house, Ms. Jones's refrigerator, Colonel Sanders's fried chicken. Don't include the extra 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.

- Do use the serial (Oxford) comma. Red, white, and blue. Yes, it's optional--but believe me, its use can prevent misunderstandings and, in some cases, embarrassment.
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 who if it could be replaced in the sentence by he, she, or theyI didn't know who was going to be there. Use whom if it could be replaced by him, her, or them. For whom the bell tolls.

- Do feel free to use contractions in the narrative of a story, not just in dialogue. You're writing fiction, not a legal brief.

- 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 as many levels of conflict as your story will bear. The shorter the story, the less room you have for this kind of thing, but there are plenty of possibilities for conflict: between the hero and another character, between the hero and himself (or herself), between the hero and society, between the hero and the elements (The Perfect Storm, Twister, Everest), between the hero and a nonhuman character (Cujo, Jaws, Alien, Moby Dick), etc.

- 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 use either Courier or Times New Roman font unless the guidelines tell you otherwise. I always use 12-point TNR.

- 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 use rambling sentences when needed (especially effective in high-tension scenes). Joe untied his ankles and grabbed his gun and sprinted down the hall and into the den and threw open the window--and saw the thief's taillights topping the hill at the end of the street.

- 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 end a sentence with a preposition if it improves clarity or believability. Especially in dialogue. Nobody at the dance would say, in real life, Is that the guy with whom you came?

- 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 feel free, in dialogue, to use the occasional gonna and wanta. You shouldn't overdo this--as mentioned earlier, misspellings in dialogue/dialect are taboo to most editors--but making speech sound realistic is a good thing to strive for.

- 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.








30 May 2020

Do's and Don'ts, Wills and Won'ts, Part 1





I had planned a different column for today, but some things I've seen over the past two weeks have steered me in another direction. (As if what I do has any direction to begin with.) In this case, it was a discussion that's been running for some time now at the Short Mystery Fiction forum, which some of you might've seen.

One of the hot topics there has been the craft and so-called "rules" of writing fiction--grammar/style, manuscript formatting, submission guidelines, etc. Something most of us are familiar with, but  something that still raises questions for many writers.


Let me make a confession here: I'm not an editor. I've edited one crime anthology, years ago--it was a lot of fun and a lot of work--and I've edited my own writing and the manuscripts of hundreds of my students in my writing classes . . . but I do no editing for a living and have never edited for a fee and don't plan to, so even though I sometimes (on good days) consider myself a professional writer, I am not a professional editor.

BUT . . . I have blundered into enough holes and cowpatties in this field of fiction writing to remember where they are and point them out. Here are some of them--and yes, many are just matters of personal opinion. Feel free to disagree.

NOTE: I'm starting with the Don'ts that I've always tried to pass along to my writer friends and students. I'll tackle the Do's in my column here next week. (One of the Don'ts ought to be Don't write a 5,000-word blog post, so I'm taking my own advice and splitting this one up into two separate columns.)

First, a map of the landmines:


Don'ts

- Don't overuse adverbs (especially the "ly" kind), don't tell something when you can show it instead, don't use cliches, don't use passive voice when you should use active, don't switch viewpoints too abruptly (there's an adverb!), don't repeat words and phrases, don't use a big word when a small one will do. And so forth.

- Don't overuse adjectives. Three or four in front of a noun is probably too many, like all those speed-bump commas that separate them. Change The hot, dry, dusty, rutted, gravel road to The dusty gravel road. Or just The dusty road. Less is better.

- Don't underline to emphasize text. Italicize instead. Until fairly recently, there were still a few magazines whose guidelines said they prefer underlining, but I think almost all of them now prefer and welcome italics. Remember, underlining was popular when typewriters were the only way to write submittable stories.

- Don't use Grammar Check--or at least don't always believe what it tells you. Fiction writers sometimes do need to splice commas, fragment sentences, split infinitives, and start sentences with a conjunction. (More on that in the Do's section and the "Breaking the Rules" section of next week's column, here.)

- Don't capitalize relationships (mother, mom, father, dad, aunt, uncle) except when addressing those people directly. Yes, Mom, her mother said it's okay for me to go.

- Don't capitalize seasons. I like summer but I love spring.

- Don't say you're nauseous--or at least don't admit it. If you're sick, you're nauseated. If you're making me sick, you're nauseous.

- Don't say feeling badly (even if Trump says it at every opportunity). Unless you have problems with sensation in your fingertips, you're feeling bad, not feeling badly.

- Don't put unspoken thoughts in quotation marks. Italicize instead, or--if it's obvious that it's an unspoken thought--don't do anything to it at all.

- Don't overuse ellipses, parentheses, dashes, or any other marks of punctuation, at least not to the point that they're distracting. That's the biggest problem: snapping the reader out of the story.

- Don't use exclamation points unless the character's pants are on fire.

- Don't use an apostrophe for most plurals, including TVs, DVDs, UFOs, RVs, EMTs, VPs, MRIs, 1980s, and Don'ts. (Unless the apostrophe is needed for clarity, as in Do's.) And for God's sake don't use apostrophes with the plurals of names like the Smiths, the Clarks, etc. Also be careful to position the apostrophe correctly after plural possessives. Wrong: We're going to the Bennett's for dinner. Right: We're going to the Bennetts' for dinner.

- Don't overuse semicolons. I happen to like semicolons--they're perfect when two complete sentences are too closely related to be separated by a period--but editors usually don't like 'em, and I'm trying to cut back to two or three a week. I've found myself using dashes instead, or rewording the text entirely, to avoid using semicolons too often. And I never use semicolons during dialogue--I think it makes speech look too stiff and formal.

- Don't use that unnecessarily. She told me that she likes you. This should be She told me she likes you.

- Don't use that when you should use who. They're the folks who always vote Republican.

- Don't use in when you should use into. She went into the cellar. She's in the cellar now.

- Don't confuse less with fewer. Less involves mass nouns; fewer involves countable units. He has less cash in his pocket. He has fewer coins in his pocket.

- Don't overuse "action" words and phrases that are already overused. He shrugged, she rolled her eyes, he sighed, she frowned, etc. I still use them in my stories and will continue to--people do shrug and sigh and roll their eyes and frown--but I try not to go overboard with it.

- Don't overuse "lazy" words like suddenly, just, very, some, and really. I happily violate this advice as well, but it's still a good rule to know. Do as I say and not as I do.

- Don't misuse the word ironic. Rain on Betty's wedding day isn't ironic. It's just unfortunate. Getting run over by a tobacco truck on the way to buy cigarettes is ironic.

- Don't use postal abbreviations in your story narrative. Nobody enjoys spelling out Connecticut or Mississippi, but to use CT or MS in anything except a mailing address is incorrect.

- Don't use too many characters with soundalike names. Especially those beginning with the same letter, but this also includes anything that might call attention to your writing. For example, you don't want too many names that consist of only one syllable--Bob, Jim, Liz, Sue, Joe, Ed, Tom, Jake, Deb--or that rhyme, like Barry, Gary, Harry, and Larry.

- If you're submitting a short story, don't say anything about the plot of your story in your cover letter. No synopsis is needed unless that's specified in the guidelines.

- Don't say anything in your cover letter that's not relevant to your story or to writing. The editor of a mystery magazine might be interested in the fact that you're also a trial lawyer, but she won't care how many kids or cats you have.

- Don't use any colors, special characters, or weird fonts or font sizes in your manuscript. I don't even put anything in boldface type. (More on this next week in the Do's section.)

- Don't (if guidelines tell you to copy/paste your story into an email) do a straight copy/paste from a Word file--or at least send it to yourself first if you do. Usually it's best to convert your story to a .txt file first, then close the file, open it again, and only then do the copy/paste. Remember too that you'll lose special characters like italics when you convert to .txt, so you'll need to go back in and put an underscore (_) just before and after any words or phrases that need to be emphasized.

- Don't let your writing program put an extra space between your double-spaced paragraphs. Your manuscript should be evenly double-spaced throughout.

- Don't use widow/orphan suppression in your manuscript. It can do funny things to the length of your pages.

- Don't use alliteration unintentionally. My sister Susan saw Sally sitting in the sunshine.

- Don't "do" speech. "I'm fine," he smiled. "I'm not," she sighed. You can't smile or sigh words. Some editors are okay with this, but some aren't.

- Don't be redundant. Repeat again, shrugged his shoulders, nodded her head, shook his head no, exact same, basic fundamentals, free gift, best ever, unexpected surprise. Doubly redundant: nodded her head yes.

- Don't use incomplete comparisons. I get along with Mom better than my sister.

- Don't use too many synonyms for said. I probably sound like Elmore Leonard here, but Stephen King and many other respected authors advise this as well. Said and asked are transparent words--the reader's eye goes right over them. Words like stated and exclaimed and ruminated and queried and declared not only provide unneeded information; they sometimes cause the reader to stop and think about the writer and the writing instead of the story. (Exception: British authors seem to love substitutes for said. They love "ly" adverbs also. Check out the Harry Potters.)

- Don't feel you have to describe people, places, and things in infinite detail. Leave some of this to the reader's imagination.

- Don't supply too much information via dialogue. Are you going to your job at Regions Bank tomorrow, Dad?

- Don't overuse ing or as constructions. He picked up the gun and walked away is often better than Picking up the gun, he walked away or As he picked up the gun, he walked away. All are grammatically correct, but too many ing and as phrases, especially at the beginning of sentences, can give the impression of lazy writing. Read the successful authors--they rarely do much of this.

- Don't lose the reader by not using any dialogue "tags" at all. Nothing's more frustrating than having to count lines backward to see who's saying what.

- Don't use dangling modifiers (modifiers with no clear reference). Opening the window, a bee flew into the room. Crouched behind the fence, his eyes went to hers.

- Don't use misplaced modifiers, which is pretty much the same thing as the previous Don't. The instructor told us to work hard at the beginning of class. My company makes combs for people with unbreakable teeth.

- Don't write run-on sentences (no connecting word or punctuation). I thought the day would never end I was so tired I could drop.

- Don't use the word alright. Doing so is not all right.

- Don't use the word utilize. It might be the most worthless and needless word in the English language, and is heard mostly (of course) in political speeches. Use use instead.

- Don't use flashbacks in a short story unless you have to. If you must, write them as units of dramatic action and not as an information dump. If it's just backstory you need, consider providing it through dialogue. How long has it been now, since Lucy's mother died?

- Don't feel you have to describe every single thing that happens. If the phone rings, you don't need to tell the reader about your character picking it up and saying hello. Just start in on the dialogue. Same thing with a knock on the door.

- Don't only write what you know. Write what you like to read, or what you feel comfortable writing. Besides, research allows you to write what you know.

NOTE: I've heard the worst writing mistake you can make is to confuse it's with its. I've heard the worst public-speaking mistake you can make is to say with you and I or for you and I. (And everybody seems to do that--especially news anchors, who should know better.)



Pet peeves

I don't like reading fees, and I don't submit stories to places that charge them.

I don't like contests. (Most of them, anyway.) I've entered some and I've won a few, but I'd rather submit my original stories to paying markets. The chances of getting published in a respectable magazine or anthology are better than the chances of winning first place in a respectable contest.

I always use a singular verb with collective plural nouns like data and media. Also, as an old IBM guy, I prefer dayta, not datta. I like The dayta is correct. I don't like The datta are correct. In fact that always gives me the giggles, like a whoopee cushion.

When spoken, I think the word lived in short-lived should have a long i (as in arrive), not a short i (as in give). It just sounds more logical--if it's short-lived, it has a short LIFE. I think I'm one of maybe two people on the planet who like to pronounce it that way. If I remember correctly, James Lincoln Warren is the other.

I usually don't like it when nouns are used as verbs. Let's fellowship after the meeting. You two should dialogue about that. Exception: I went home and googled it.

I've grown desperately tired of words and expressions like I got your back, stunning video, iconic, ASAP, I'm all about (this or that), pushing the envelope, sense of closure, and giving it 110%. I'm guilty of using too many cliches anyway, in both speech and writing, so I sure don't use these. The same goes for adjectives like awesome and amazingThe view from the south rim of the Grand Canyon is awesome. My cousin's husband, no matter what she says, is not. He's not amazing, either.

I don't like to write in present tense. I'm not wild about reading present-tense stories either, but I've finally given in, and it no longer bothers me that much.

Other aggravations, while I'm thinking of it, are prescription-drug commercials, personal-injury lawyer commercials, robocalls, televangelists, coconuts, licorice, and almost anything on network TV. Then again, I'm getting old and grumpy, and these have nothing to do with writing.

What are some of your own don'ts, and pet peeves?


Wrap-up (thank God, right?)

The last thing I should point out is Don't overuse instructions about overuse. In other words, Don't pay too much attention to people who tell you how to write, because all of us think we know more than we do, and everyone's different.

Anyhow, in Part 2 next Saturday (June 6), I'll cover the Do's, along with an extremely biased discussion about breaking the rules.

See you then.






07 April 2019

Professional Tips, and/or
Exceptions to the Rules


by Leigh Lundin

Often I turn to mystery writers for professional tips, but my friend, editor, writer, teacher Sharon sent me a Paris Review article by Benjamin Dreyer, author of Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. He presents a sensible, literate, and wonderfully enjoyable defense of bending, even breaking the rules.

The Village Explainer

The ‘4 Cs’ represent the real axioms of good writing, convention, consensus, clarity, comprehension. I suspect even these rules can be carefully broken, but not with impunity. Dreyer uses an example of ‘not only x but y’, but he didn’t extend the explanation to its conclusion. I’d back into one more in his C list, logiC.

I just single-handedly Crumpled my Credibility, but writing requires a certain logic, not merely plot, not merely sensible characterization, but how we string words together. Logic, for example, might include arguments for the Oxford comma, that clarity demands all items in a list should be separated by commas.

To Be and Not to Be (Schrödinger’s Last Meow)

Writers understand the difference between ‘and’ and ‘or’, but is ‘and/or’ a legitimate construction? One of my esteemed colleagues chided me for using it in an email, arguing it’s redundant. Use one or the other, he said, preferably ‘or’. He pointed out the persistent bugger has been criticized for at least a century. Even Strunk and White weighed in The Elements of Style. The manual says, ‘and/or’ “damages a sentence and often leads to confusion or ambiguity.”

What does the phrase “Abel, Baker and/or Charlie” mean in a contract or a bank check? My favorite YouTube attorney, Steve Lehto, recorded a lecture on the topic. Courts have had to decide the meaning of ‘and/or’ in legal cases, where they usually, but not always, arrive at a consensus of any or all.

While the awkward phrase should never appear in professional writing, I disagree ‘and/or’ can simply be replaced with one conjunction or the other. As I prepared this article, I looked up the combination to see if anyone else felt similarly. To my surprise, I came across a number of articles including a Wikipedia entry.

In a case of being wrong but right, I discovered ‘and/or’ can’t be simply reduced to ‘and’ or ‘or’. This has led grammarians to propose using the most appropriate of three constructs:
  • x or y or both
  • either x or y
  • x and any y
While the first has its proponents, especially amid legal circles, Mignon Fogarty, Grammar Girl, argues the third example can have its uses. She contends the first recommendation is awkward, through perhaps not quite as awful as the original ‘and/or’ phrase. She further suggests that if one insists upon using ‘and/or’, then treat the sentence as if the subject is plural, not singular.

Meanwhile, Back at the ProVerbial Ranch…

Check out Dreyer’s Non-Rules. Students have read others discussing the topics before, all basic rules, but not with this light-touch analysis you shouldn’t miss.
  1. Never Begin a Sentence with ‘And’ or ‘But’
  2. Never Split an Infinitive
  3. Never End a Sentence with a Preposition
As Dreyer points out, there’s more than meets the eye.

Rules, love ’em, hate ’em. What are your (dis)favorites?

TidByts for Grammar Geeks

[TL;DR] But wait! There’s more!

12 July 2014

The Old and the New


by John M. Floyd

Like most of my SleuthSayers colleagues, I've been writing fiction for a long time. I like to think that I've learned, during those years, some things about the craft. Unfortunately, though, putting the right words together in the right order is not enough to ensure success in this crazy business, so I have also tried (and often failed) to keep up with changes in all the kinds of things editors want to see, in the submissions they receive. That, as everyone knows, can be a moving target.

A small-caliber evolver

That's what I am, I suppose. A low-profile writer of crime fiction who has finally realized that novels and short stories, like the language they're written in, are evolving--and that if I want to survive I have to evolve also. I won't attempt in today's column to address issues like traditional publishing vs. self-publishing, printed fiction vs. e-books, mailed submissions vs. electronic submissions, and zombie/vampire trends--but I do want to talk a little about small changes in the way we're supposed to put our stories and novels on paper. Or, more accurately, on our hard drives. 

Twenty years ago, when I started writing for publication, there were a group of formatting rules that writers followed, in order to better their chances of getting accepted and published. Some of those requirements are still around and some have become optional, but a great many have disappeared, or at least changed.

Once upon a time …

Consider the following half-dozen "old" rules of writing. Most of them were made because of typewriters and their limitations, but the rules somehow remained in effect for quite some time after computers and word-processing programs and laser/inkjet printers arrived.

1. Always use Courier font. A lot of writers still choose to use Courier for their manuscripts because of its readability, but very few markets require it anymore in their guidelines. I switched over to Times New Roman years ago because so many editors and publishers seem to prefer it. Only once have I had to use something different: an editor asked me awhile back to submit using Verdana. Verdana?? But I did it, and she bought the story.

2. Always put two spaces after a period. This goes back to the way most of us learned to type, in high school. When you had only one font available (Courier), and that font was non-proportional (every letter was the same width), two spaces after a period made sense; one space just didn't seem to "look" right. Now some short-fiction markets and some book publishers--mine, for example--require only one space after a period. I still use two spaces in my e-mails, text messages, personal letters, etc., because it somehow seems more natural and comfortable, but I dutifully follow the current one-space-after-a-period rule in all my manuscripts and in my SleuthSayers columns.

3. Always underline to indicate italics. This is another throwback to the times when there was no way to italicize text in a manuscript. I don't obey that rule anymore, except when submitting to certain publications; some markets, like AHMM, still require underlining rather than italicizing in their submissions. (I suspect that it's because an underlined word can be easier to spot than an italicized word.) Underlined text is of course then changed to italics in the printed, published version of the story. NOTE: If you submit to a market electronically and are asked to copy/paste your manuscript into the body of an e-mail, special features like italics and underlining are of course lost when you save and reopen the file in .txt format. In that case, I use the underscore key ( _ ) just before and just after the word or phrase that should be italicized. The editor will know what you mean.

4. Always round off your word count. I still do this occasionally before typing it in at the upper right corner of the first page of my ready-to-be-submitted manuscript--and when I do, I round it to the nearest 100 words. Usually, though, I just highlight the manuscript text--everything between my byline and the words THE END--and press the "word count" key. I then use that exact figure. This isn't something I worry much about, since I doubt editors really care whether I say "about 2400 words" or "2389 words." But I imagine Faulkner and Hemingway would have been tickled pink and shocked sober to be able to hit a key and get an exact word count.

5. Always use two hyphens for a dash. Some submission guidelines still ask that we writers do that--but most markets are fine with the em dash, which is created by typing the two hyphens together with no spaces before or after and then hitting the space bar after the next word. (Assuming, of course, that that feature has been activated in your word processor.) In my opinion, an em dash is another of those things that just "looks" more correct, and more professional, in a manuscript.

6. Always double-space twice to indicate a scene break. For years I did exactly that. The only time I typed any kind of character in between the ending line of a scene and the beginning line of the next was for clarity purposes, if the break occurred at the very top or bottom of a page. And then something crazy happened: a magazine accepted my correctly typed manuscript and then published my story without one of my scene breaks. They just left it out and butted the two paragraphs together, presumably because they or their formatting software never noticed the two blank lines between the scenes. I've been paranoid about it ever since then, and have always put something in there, between the scenes: an asterisk, several asterisks, a pound-sign (hash), whatever. AHMM, in its submission guidelines, specifically requests that writers insert a centered "#" between scenes, and my publisher requires three grouped asterisks (***). I prefer the #.

Post scripts

There are plenty of other manuscript formatting rules: use one-inch margins, use 12-point font, double-space, left-justify, and so on, and all of those appear to have remained in force to this day. There are also a lot of formatting rules for cover letters, envelopes, etc. I guess the main thing is, standardize as much as possible but try also to be aware of any changing of those standards. Getting published is an uphill battle anyway; you certainly want to appear knowledgable and not be annoying, at least not to an editor/agent/publisher. More and more of these "gatekeepers" seem to be young and female and far more receptive to change than the old male stereotypes who used to read our stories and make decisions about which ones to publish and which ones to reject. Don't get me wrong--that change is probably a good thing.

How about you? What writing rules do you follow, or voluntarily break, in the creation and submission of your fiction manuscripts? Do you still stand by the older rules, or have you evolved along with some of the requirements?

In closing, and on an entirely different subject, I'd like to again welcome Melodie Campbell to our group. I'm proud and honored to have her as my new Saturday blog-sister, and I look forward to her posts every other week. (I'm even hoping some of her fans might get their Saturdays mixed up and pop in to read my columns now and then as well.)

To today's readers, whether you're here on purpose or by accident, I hope to see you here again in two weeks.

And I'll try to stick to the rules.