More on Characters

September 5, 2013

We moved from the Twin Cities (MN) to our cabin a few years ago and love country living. But one malady I had not yet faced  was computer issues. That is, I had not faced it until the mother board went out on my computer. It may have taken a little longer to fix out here, but all is well now. I’m just sorry it took so long to offer you this continuation on characters.

Now, on to characters.

As you get acquainted with your characters, you’ll find some traits are more prominent than others. You may even decide some traits aren’t strong enough to consider at all. But it never hurts to have a checklist to help you test your character structures, so here’s one you may want to try.

  • Strength and Intensity. Determine how strong each character is and whether or not the character is real enough to make the reader care about what happens to him or her. I love reading mysteries, but found I kept forcing myself to read this particular one written by a well-known mystery author. When I admitted it was because I didn’t care about any of the primary characters, I stopped reading it.
  • Power or ability to act. Your plot needs characters to help move things along, so avoid stagnant, passive characters.
  • Interaction with other characters. Not only must your characters do things, but they must also be involved with each other. They must interact appropriately, as well. That is, they must not be so different or contrast so much that they are unbelievable in their interaction. Also, your secondary characters must remain secondary rather than take over the scene played with the primary character.
  • Overall attractiveness. This isn’t about beauty, but rather about balance. No one likes a character who’s too perfect, too heroic, or too evil, too horrible. Be sure you temper the good character with a few flaws and the bad character with a touch of virtue.
  • Character credibility. Credibility comes from consistency. Make sure your character is consistent both internally and externally. By that I mean the motivation (internal) and action (external) are consistent with who the character is.
  • Strive for clarity over complexity. As you write your key scenes, strive to make sure any changes in your primary characters are clear, especially if those changes are complex or life-altering.
  • Listen to the dialogue. Readers hear what characters say. Make sure your character uses the words he or she would use. Make sure the words aren’t tongue twisters. Make sure the voice is gender appropriate (men and women do say things differently). The character’s talk should match the character.

Readers envision stories as they read. One of your jobs as an author is to get your reader to turn to the book or e-reader, instead of the television, for entertainment. I’m not the only reader who stopped reading a book because of the characters. Get to know yours as intimately as you can, and you’ll find you’ll have fans for years to come. Think of all the characters you’ve loved over years and you’ll realize I’m right.

Happy writing!

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!

Editing is a Critical Part of the Writing Process

October 3, 2012

I attended two meetings and one seminar last week and one issue surfaced in each venue–today’s writing needs more editing. When pressed for more details, each person talked about the explosion of independent publishing created by technology and the deterioration of the quality of the end result. Most of the complaints centered around e-books, but independently published (aka self-published) print books were just as bad.

Here are some of the points raised in the discussions during last week’s meetings:

  • Simple punctuation errors such as where to place commas or periods with quotation marks (both go inside the quotation mark, by the way).
  • Simple punctuation errors such as whether or not to place a comma before the conjunction in a series (per the book industry standard, Chicago Manual of Style, a comma goes before the conjunction in a series).
  • Pronoun/antecedent disagreement (plural pronouns such as they or their with singular antecedents such as speaker). Example: When a speaker tells their audience a story, they should use more gestures. Edited version: Most speakers should use more gestures when telling stories to their audiences.
  • Overuse of trite expressions.
  • Overuse of favorite words or phrases.
  • Overuse of scare quotes. Scare quotes are the quotation marks put around words. These should be used judiciously and only when “scaring” a reader into seeing a word is used in unusual manner. Too many scare quotes become distracting.
  • Capitalization of job titles without a person’s name. Example: I couldn’t reach the Principal, so I called the Superintendent.
  • Using ellipsis to show a break or pause. The correct punctuation for that is a dash. Ellipsis shows omission, not pause. The one exception is that ellipsis is correctly used  in dialogue to show faltering speech.
  • Sometimes words are missing.

The take-away from the discussions is the writer’s credibility is compromised, if not dismissed, when he or she shows little regard for details before publishing.

One caution, however. Avoid asking people who love you (and everything you write) to help you with your editing. They simply won’t tell you where your writing lacks clarity or needs work, either because they don’t see it  themselves or they don’t want to risk hurting you.

Do yourself and your reader a favor and invest in hiring an editor before you independently publish your work. The perception of your credibility depends on it.

Does all of this mean your “baby” won’t have a birthmark? No. Writers are human. Editors are human. Humans make mistakes. It happens, even in the big publishing houses. All I’m suggesting is it’s worth doing a little extra editing for both you and your reader.

Happy writing!

Get Yourself Clear about Your Writing

September 13, 2012

You’re living a fulfilling life and want to share your thoughts with others. Speaking in front of groups doesn’t sound like much fun, so you choose writing. Sounds easy, but it isn’t. There’s a lot that goes into writing well.

Before you put pen to paper or finger to keyboard, you need to get yourself clear about your writing. The very first step to good writing is living. Yep, living. If you watch others instead of experiencing life yourself, you’re missing all the aspects of whatever it is you want to write about. I understand not everyone can do everything, and that’s why they interview other people. But to the extent you live something first-hand yourself, you’ll do a better of job of writing about it than if you write from a second-hand perspective.

The second step to getting yourself clear about your writing is determination. You need to determine that you are really going to write your book or article or blog or whatever.

In the third step, you need to determine why you are writing. Is your motivation to gain attention? to gain clients? to claim expertise? to serve your reader? to satisfy your own desire to write? Be honest with yourself about the why and your writing will be open and honest.

Now that you know why you’re writing, envision your reader. Unlike face-to-face communication where you can see your reader, written communication is one-on-one communication without feedback. That is, your reader cannot ask you for clarification, and you cannot see when your reader is confused or frustrated. The best way to figure out what your reader wants (or at least needs) to know is you envisioning your reader while you write.

The fifth and final step to getting yourself clear about your writing is to write in your own voice. Just about everything’s been said and said and said, but it hasn’t been said by you. There are insights only you can provide. There are expressions or ideas you have that your reader will find valuable.

Avoid the gremlin on your shoulder that whispers negativity. You lived something, are determined to share it, know why you want to share it, have figured out who you’re writing for, and have something to say in your own voice. That’s all you need to get yourself clear about your writing, so get busy!

Happy writing!


Avoid Euphemisms in Your Writing

March 28, 2012

When I taught writing classes at a local college, I kept underscoring the importance of writing in active voice because readers prefer it. I’d also tell my students that government, academia, and business writing are all typically written in passive voice. Then I’d challenge them to remember the last time they stood in line to get a highly desired copy of the most recent tax code or company policy on something. As I saw the smiles appear on my students’ faces, I knew they understood.

Another thing organizations that prefer passive voice use is euphemisms. Here are some examples.

  • Temporarily displaced inventory means stolen goods.
  • Thermal therapy kit means bag of ice cubes.
  • Substantive negative outcome means failed.
  • Reutilization marketing location means junkyard.
  • Negative gain in test scores means lower test scores.
  • Synthetic glass means plastic.
  • Suffers from fictitious disorder syndrome means lies.
  • Vegetarian leather means vinyl.

I expect some of these examples brought a smile to your face. But my point is to encourage you to write clearly so your reader can follow you and get your point rather to entertain you. I hope these examples help you see the importance of writing succinctly and clearly.

Happy writing!

Keep Your Reader in Mind

April 6, 2011

I often ask students, “Who do you write for? Yourself? The reader? Who?” Many new writers tell me they write for themselves. Of course, it’s important you enjoy writing, you have an interest in your topic, and you are proud of what you write, so in that sense writing for yourself is good.

However, you’ll enjoy more success as a writer if you keep your reader in mind. Think of your reader as a house guest you’ve invited into your home. Wouldn’t you take special care in making sure your reader felt welcome? So it should be when you invite a reader into your book, into your article, into your writing of any type.

Here are some questions to ponder to help you keep the reader in mind.

  • Who is your reader? Can you picture him/her? I tell my students to peruse magazines until they find a photo of someone who represents their reader, then cut the photo out and tape it to the computer monitor so it’s in front of them whenever they write.
  • What does the image of your reader tell you about the reader’s attitude toward life in general?
  • What do you think appeals to this reader?
  • What do you think turns this reader off?
  • What does this reader need to know?
  • What does this reader expect to learn/get/achieve by reading your writing?

Once you get in touch with your reader, it’s easier to remember that you are having a one-on-one relationship (writer to reader) with your reader. One of the mistakes I see many new writers make is they forget they are not writing to the masses. They write, “Most of you…,” or “Some of you…,” when they should write, “You may…” or “If you…” to show the reader the personal connection between two individuals communicating.

And, yes, I do know communication is sending and receiving between two parties. However, the reader cannot send feedback to the writer, so it is critical the writer keep the reader in mind and, using the questions above, try to anticipate what the reader needs, then strive to meet those needs.

Keeping the reader in mind is not difficult, but it is important. Start doing it today and you’ll absolutely do a better job in communicating with your writing.

Happy writing!

Troubleshooting Your Manuscript

July 16, 2010

Most writers know what they expect of their editors–grammar, spelling, punctuation, capitalization are the minimum.

For a little more money, they can expect content editing where the editor looks at clarity, conciseness, redundancy, flow, etc.

But what about troubleshooting? What about pitfalls? What about those things that impact author credibility? After all, the author, not the editor, is responsible for providing original content.

No reputable publisher knowingly publishes material that involves copyright infringement, plagiarism, hoax, libel, obscenity, or even examples that could hurt author/publisher credibility.

In our publishing company, Expert Publishing, I’ve suggested authors reconsider using examples of Toyota, Enron, etc. that were good examples when the manuscript was originally written, but not so good for the duration a book is in print. I’ve also required authors to change words that were potentially offensive to readers. Better to have readers excited about your book than concentrate on one or two negatives and talk just about those.

Add the cost of litigation (because you pay the lawyers to defend you whether or not you win the case), and it’s just not worth not troubleshooting your manuscript for potential problems.

So, who’s responsible for the troubleshooting? You, as author, are ultimately accountable. When Doris Goodwin Kearns faced plagiarism charges, the media wrote about her, not her editor. When James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces was exposed, Frey, not his editor, faced Oprah.

If you have an editor who suggests potential trouble spots to you, you are fortunate. Be sure you consider any warnings or suggestions offered because your published work is around a long time.

Here are some things to correct in or eliminate  from your manuscripts.

  • Words or terms that offend a specific group of people
  • Incorrect dates
  • Words consistently misspelled
  • Mislabeled photos
  • Unattributed directly quoted material
  • Incorrect names for people
  • Incorrect spelling of people’s names (if you’re sloppy on spelling their name, how sloppy is the rest of your research?)

I understand anything humans do won’t necessarily be perfect, as none of us is perfect. However, the more we strive to eliminate trouble in our manuscripts, the more errors we catch.

Happy writing!