Back to Basics

April 24, 2013

Most writers write without giving much thought to basics. I’ve noticed a trend in the manuscripts I edit and in the assignments my college students turn in–knowledge of basic writing rules is lacking.

Here’s a refresher to check your own writing.

  • A sentence is a group of words that expresses a complete thought. It requires both a subject and a verb. A subject is a noun (person, place, or thing) and a verb shows what the subject is or does.
  • An incomplete sentence may contain a subject and a verb, but it is called a sentence fragment because it does not express a complete thought.
  • A run-on sentence is created when two or more complete thoughts are joined without punctuation. If you join the thoughts without a conjunction, the correct punctuation is a semi-colon. If you join them with a conjunction, the correct punctuation is a comma.
  • Words that modify a noun or pronoun must appear in close proximity to the noun or pronoun being modified.
  • Dangling modifiers confuse the reader. Example: Walking down the pathway, the agate caught his eye. This says the agate is doing walking. Corrected example: Walking down the pathway, he noticed the agate.
  • Misplaced modifiers obscure the modifier meaning from the reader. Example: She noticed the loose tile in the restaurant’s kitchen while conducting a safety inspection after hours. You can make the meaning of what she is doing more clear by rewriting the sentence this way:  While conducting a safety inspection after hours, she noticed the loose tile in the restaurant’s kitchen.
  • Pronoun/antecedent agreement has surfaced as a huge problem since we’ve become politically correct. Back in beginning of time (kidding), the masculine pronoun was standard. Today, to avoid offending anyone, the generic plural (they, them, their) gets used. The problem arises because a singular antecedent (that’s the noun the pronoun refers to) needs a singular pronoun. Example of what’s incorrect: The neighbor won’t keep their yard mowed.  Neighbor is singular. Their is plural. Those two disagree and that’s bad writing. The fix is easy. Make neighbor plural (neighbors) or change their to the. Look at your own writing and see if you can improve it with just a little more effort in the pronoun/antecedent agreement area.
  • Subject/verb agreement is another area that needs attention. Agreement refers to number. A singular subject needs a singular verb. A plural subject needs a plural verb. Be sure you don’t confuse the subject with its modifier, which can cause you to use the wrong verb. Example: The closet containing all the art supplies is locked. Closet is the subject and singular. Supplies is plural but is a modifier, so doesn’t impact the verb. Thus, use the singular verb is with the singular subject. NOTE: Collective nouns (these refer to a group acting as one unit such as family, committee, team, etc.) use a singular verb.

Hope this primer helps you get back to basics.

Happy writing!

Don’t Forget the Proofreading!

April 22, 2013

There’s hardly a topic more boring than proofreading, but you must proofread your stuff before you send it out to an agent (or, yes, to an editor).

So what is proofreading? It’s a mode of checking written work so that work is in its best form possible.

Proofreading benefits for you, the writer, are:

  • credibility
  • professional image
  • knowledge demonstration (of grammar, punctuation, spelling, capitalization, and format, genre, etc.)
  • stress reduction (you know you’re sending out a quality product, so you don’t have to stress over it–just move on to the next article or column or character, etc.)

Most writers would rather be creating than proofreading, so start by creating a positive proofreading environment with these steps.

  • Create a schedule that includes timelines, due dates, and reader (editor/agent/customer/etc.) expectations.
  • Figure out your best time (some are morning people, others night people, others afternoon), and block out proofreading time when you are most alert.
  • Eliminate distractions. Yes, you can turn off the phone, ignore email, or close your door and survive for an hour or so.
  • Focus on what you’re proofreading. That means you put away your other projects during proofreading.
  • Keep reference material within reach–if you only use online references such as dictionaries, grammar books, style books, etc., you must be disciplined to go back to proofreading once you’ve found the answer to your question online.
  • Work in comfort. If your chair isn’t the appropriate height or your lighting is inadequate, you won’t focus on proofreading until you get comfortable anyway, so why not start out that way?

Finally, here are some things you can do to get over proofreading monotony.

  • Change the time of day you proofread, but stay in your prime time (example: if your prime time is 6:00 am to 9:00 am, start at 7:00 one morning and 7:30 the next).
  • Eat lightly. Snacks can bolster your energy, but heavy meals can bog you down.
  • Change your work pace. If your goal is to proofread six pages every fifteen minutes, consider changing to three every ten minutes, then take a short break in between sessions.
  • If you’re backed up on proofreading, create criteria to help you prioritize. Could be deadline, could be payment rate, could be which project is shorter, could be which project you enjoy most. You decide how to give preference to your project(s), then use your criteria to keep proofreading moving.

Proofreading can be one of the most rewarding steps in your writing. Once you’re done proofreading, you’re ready to send your work out and move on to the next project. How fun is that!

Happy writing!


Some One-liners for Tax Day

April 15, 2013

Today is April 15, and I found some one-liners that may bring a smile on this not-funny day.

  • A real friend will take you to lunch whether you’re tax deductible or not.
  • April 15 reminds us that some days are more taxing than others.
  • All big problems started out small.
  • Accountants who have all the answers made some of them up.
  • A lot of long stories would be shorter if they were more truthful.
  • When all is said and done, the meeting is over.
  • It’s amazing how long some people can talk without mentioning what they’re talking about.

I realize I’m deviating from my writing/publishing/editing theme, but the list above does make a writing point. When writing humor, remember that humor is subjective and has only one opportunity to be funny. If your reader doesn’t get it the first time, it won’t be funny if read a second time or if someone explains why it’s funny.

While poetry is the hardest writing to sell, humor is the hardest writing to write successfully. I think the list of one-liners is humorous and hope you smiled at one of them at least.

Happy writing!

Need to Organize Your Writing? Start with a List.

April 12, 2013

The older I get, the more I see the value in making lists. I swear that’s because I have so much crammed in my brain that it’s hard to keep everything straight unless I write things down. My friends just smile and nod.

Anyway, here’s my list of tips for properly creating lists.

  • First, make sure your list is an organized list. That means you don’t co-mingle your short-story list with your article list with your novel list with your non-fiction book list, etc.
  • Next, use your lists to get an overview of tasks that build on one another. Doing so keeps backtracking and undoing what’s already been done to a minimum.
  • Next, figure out what goes together on your list, then group like things into categories and subcategories. For example, you may have a primary character category, a supporting character category, and a if-I-can-fit-this-character-in category.
  • If your project is large (such as a novel), put different categories (scenes, characters, etc.) on different pages so you have plenty of room to add more or comment on what’s there.
  • Finally, remember that lists are tools, not sacred texts. You can change them, add to them, take away from them, whatever you need to do to make them functional for you.

One published author I know (royalty-published many times, if that’s important for you to know), creates a spiral notebook for every novel he writes. Why a spiral notebook? It’s portable and never gets a low-battery warning. Anyway, his lists include scene ideas, character quotes/dialogue/descriptions, plot lines, chapter outlines, deadlines, etc. He uses what he can and saves the rest for another work.

Think about your writing projects, then imagine if they’d flow a little easier if you worked from lists. It may be worth a try.

Happy writing!


Use Sound to Set the Mood in Your Writing

April 10, 2013

Sometimes getting rid of extraneous adjectives and exchanging passive verbs for active ones doesn’t do enough to jazz up your writing. When you feel that way, it may be time to actually hear the words you see on paper.

Words can bring all five senses to the forefront. The word orange evokes color, scent, shape, taste, and even texture. When you listen to the word fire, you can imagine the low flames with the  f sound, then sense  the angry flames soaring up the chimney as the word ends.

Pay attention to where sounds form in your mouth. Consonants are formed using combinations of the lips, tongue, and teeth. Vowels are formed in the front, mid-mouth, back, up, and down.

Test for yourself that sounds formed near the top of the mouth are happy or light (a, e, t, d, r in treat, star, for example). Sounds formed near the bottom of the mouth are darker (o, u, g, k in moan, gloom, for example). Add the vibration of vocal chords or stoppage from blocked air, and you’ll sense harsher feelings without realizing it’s happening. For example, you could choose glitter or you could choose shimmer, but glitter sounds more harsh.

Test words by exaggerating their sounds out loud. Bite down on the t and d. Hiss the s and z. Hear gr sounds growl. Slide the tongue along the palate for l. Stretch out vowels. A long repeated e sounds like a shriek. A long a sounds like a wail.

This concept isn’t as new to you as you may think. Most writers have used sound in writing and called it alliteration–the repetition of initial sounds.

Think about mood first. Ominous, scary stories call for words formed near the bottom of the mouth. Upbeat, lively stories require sounds from higher in the mouth.

Consider word choice to build tension. Which feels more tense to you as you read it? “Don’t dictate to me,” or “Don’t tell me what to do.”? I expect the first choice, with its  repetition of the t creates more tension without you, as reader, realizing it.

That leads me to my final point. You don’t want your reader to realize you’re using this technique. Stop and hear the words of your story. If you’re forcing the sounds, this technique won’t work. Don’t force an uncommon word to get a desired sound when a well-chosen common word is a better choice.

Have fun with this technique and add it to your writing toolbox.

Happy writing!

So Many Writing Contests, So Little Time

April 8, 2013

I’ve been bombarded with notices about writing contests lately. I’ve judged both writing contests and book award competitions and here are some tips to help you if you’re thinking about entering.

  • Have a reason for entering. Do you want to be published? Do you want writing credentials? Ask yourself why you’re entering the contest.
  • Select the right contest to meet your needs. Are you looking for feedback? Do you want to get an editor’s or agent’s attention? Are you looking for a cash prize? You need to decide which contest(s) meet your needs.
  • Follow submission guidelines. Be sure you understand the contest rules and follow them completely. Be sure you don’t exceed the page limit, for example. Check the basics like grammar, punctuation, spelling. Double-space your entry. Trust me on that one. I teach college courses and my students get points deducted if their papers aren’t double-spaced. There are always some who try 1.5 spaces so they fit within the assignment page length requirements, but it jumps out when everyone else submits double-spaced. If no font size is stated, go with a 12 pt. serif font (one with the little tails on the letters). The serifs allow for easier eye flow in reading.
  • Once  you’ve proofread your submission and sent it out, forget about it. You’ll hear something in time. In the interim, don’t waste precious writing time thinking about what’s out of your control. Move on to something else because contest judging can take months to complete.
  • Consider what the judges say in their feedback. You’ll probably get score sheets with critiques/feedback when the judging is completed. If more than one judge offers similar feedback, consider listening to it. Judging is subjective. What one judge hates, another may love. (By the way, editors are subjective too.) If you don’t agree with a judge, fine. But at least consider what the judges say.
  • Thank the judges if you know who they are. You may not know them by name, but if they use a number or other code identifier, you have enough information to send a thank-you note. Granted, you paid for the privilege of entering the contest. Granted, you may not agree with the results or feedback. But sending a note that simply says, “Thank you for taking the time to judge my entry,” is a courteous thing to do. Your judge may be involved in another contest, may be an editor, may be an agent. You will stand out from the crowd if you extend a little professional courtesy. Write one thank-you note per judge. Address the envelope with just the judge’s identifier, stamp the envelope, put all the envelopes in one larger envelope and mail to the contest coordinator. The coordinator can fill in the blank address on your card , then drop your note in the mail.

If you decide to plunk down the money and enter some writing contests during your career, I wish you all the best. These tips should help.

Happy writing!

A Scene is a Terrible Thing to Waste

April 5, 2013

Stumped on how to write a good scene?  All scenes start with an idea you end up summarizing in a few hundred words.

Here are the components of a scene.

  • Characters involved–are they angry, excited, scared?
  • Atmosphere of place–is it cozy, harsh, calm?
  • Indication of time pressure on action–set the alarm for the reader to show him/her what needs to happen by when.
  • Tension–every scene has purpose and impact on the characters.

Create scene balance by putting the action in the forefront, then interweaving description into the setting.

After you’ve written the scene, look it over to make sure you haven’t done the following to junk up your scene.

  • Provided too much information–instead assume your reader has some intelligence, so you don’t have to explain every detail.
  • Have too little point to the scene–there should be something at stake. If not, you may not need that scene.
  • Written too much description–balance description and action.
  • Offered no character impact–although you don’t want to overdo this, you want your readers to see the impact of the scene on the characters, so give reader some indication of how the setting effects the character(s).

Once you’ve corrected or eliminated the junk, make sure your scene is charged with energy (vocabulary is the tool for accomplishing this). You’ll also want  to make sure your scene has dramatic interest–enchantment, instability, reversal, etc.

As you read fiction, analyze the scenes with these points in mind and you’ll see your own scene writing become better too.

Happy writing!

Wanna Write? Then be Open to Change.

April 3, 2013

You say you want to write more. You dream of being published. Then you go about your daily routine and your writing gets put on hold. Sound familiar?

If you wanna write, you need to be open to changing something in your life so you can find the time or place or even the energy to write. Most of us get into our daily ruts and to justify those ruts, we call them “comfort zones.” Then we resist doing anything new or different.

We all, including me, prefer some predictability and steadiness in life over chaos and surprise. But somewhere in the middle, change occurs  in our careers, in our relationships, in our health, in where we live–in life. You’ve heard that writers are observers of life. Well, if life involves change, why not stop resisting or lamenting change? Put on your big writer pants and go to work writing, maybe even writing about change!

Joseph Campbell said, “We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” In order to have the life that is waiting for us, we need to embrace change. Here are five tips to help you manage change so you can keep your promise to yourself to write.

  1. Focus on things you can control. There are many demands on your time, for example, but you have some control over which demands you accept and which you say no to.
  2. Monitor your thoughts. Pay attention to the ideas that pop into your head and capture them before they get away. If you don’t, when you finally sit down to write, those ideas will be gone.
  3. Be open to learning from change. When something unexpected happens, you not only have frustration or surprise, you have opportunity–opportunity to examine the change and look for the lesson you can take away from the experience.
  4. Stop resisting change. Try going with the flow and see if life gets better (if not easier) when you let things evolve and you stop forcing outcomes.
  5. Take care of yourself. Change often brings stress. Stress can create all sorts of issues for you–lack of sleep, overindulgence in alcohol, negative thinking, anger, etc. If you won’t take care of yourself for you, take care of yourself for those who love you, for your readers, for your writing (because only you can and will write what you write).

Change in life is a given. You can either fear it and make yourself sick with worry, or you can accept change as a natural part of living and develop your coping skills to handle change. I hope you do the latter. Happy writing!

Twelve Tips for Keeping Readers

April 1, 2013

Although today is April Fool’s Day, these twelve tips for keeping readers are no fooling.

  1. Write down your idea(s) as soon as possible. Even if an idea doesn’t seem right for your current project, you never know where you can use it, so get it down on paper.
  2. Once you’ve got your idea(s) on paper, don’t lose what you wrote down. Figure out a place to keep your creative genius so you can find it again when you want it.
  3. Realize that every kind of writing is observation. Your job is to reflect life back to your reader so your reader can relate.
  4. Sometimes an idea may seem like an extension of another idea. That’s okay. Go ahead and write that extension down too. It could take your story or article in a whole new direction.
  5. Look for inconsistencies in life and write about them. For example, what can you discover when you analyze why a person drinks a diet soda with a fast food combo meal? Saving calories? Taste issue? Justification for the fast food?
  6. Tap into the universality of an experience or idea. Everyone reacts to a paper cut pretty much the same way, for example.
  7. Watch how often you repeat a word–especially unintended repetition. I recently edited a book that used the same unusual word twice in one sentence, which distracted from what the author wanted to say.
  8. Write as clearly as you can so your reader doesn’t have to back up to figure out who’s talking or what your sentence just said. If your reader has to back up too often, you’ve probably  lost him/her.
  9. When you tell a story, exaggerate a little–report more than you actually saw. Embellishment can add color and interest to your writing.
  10. It’s not possible to show every detail in your story–and you shouldn’t. Think of your story a sculpture and get rid of everything that isn’t important.
  11. If writing humor, realize that humor has to be funny from the beginning with smiles sprinkled in. But humor is subjective, which means you may have to cut stuff you like but no one else does.
  12. When writing a story you don’t know how to end, take the ending idea and bring it full circle back to the idea that opened the story.

With so much competition for a reader’s time and attention these days, I trust you’ll find something useful you can use in these twelve tips.

Happy writing!