Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Hacking out the Dead Wood

by Annette Lyon

First off, a caveat:

What I'm about to talk about is something you shouldn't worry about until you reach the revision stage.

Don't get anxious over this kind of thing while you're drafting, or you'll drive yourself loony trying to make a perfectly clean first draft. Write that first version with as much dead wood as flows from your fingertips; you can always fix it later. Let that creative side have free rein.

For that matter, chopping out dead wood in a manuscript is something you deal with after the first or second revision. Really, don't stress about this stuff until you're at the clean-up stage, tightening things and spit-polishing so you really shine.

But do take the time for that spit polish. If you watch out for these kinds of things before you actually submit, your work will read smoother. You'll get your point across easier and more effectively. Your reader (potential editor/agent) will be more likely to notice your story, your voice, yes, even your brilliance, when the clumsy stuff is out of the way.

It's smooth writing that readers slip into without even realizing it.

So with all that said, here we go:

Most "dead wood" consists of extra words, padding that just isn't pulling any weight or adding anything to a sentence.

Sometimes it shows up as a redundancy, such as, "true fact," "fictional novel," or "famous celebrity." Or something else that's obvious, like the "shoe on his foot" or "the smile on her face." (Where else would the shoe or smile be? If the shoe is on his ear, that is worth mentioning.)

In those cases, cut the redundancy. In many cases, you'll be able to find simpler ways of saying the same thing to get the message across better.

For example, a good chunk of the time, things like "to go to" can be simplified or cut altogether.

Instead of: I started to go to school at NYU.


I started school at NYU.
I went to NYU.

Or several other variations that are more precise.

Another dead wood issue I see a lot of is "would" in sentences where it doesn't belong. A lot of times, "would" adds even more words so the sentence will make sense (like "that"), so you end up with significant meaningless padding.

Instead of: We would go to the movies every weekend.
Try: We went to the movies every weekend.

Instead of: If asked, I would tell people that I didn’t like pickles.
Try: If asked, I said I didn’t like pickles.

In the following example, we have a was -ing verb (note that on your "red flag" list of dead wood) as well as a "that":

Instead of: As I was looking for a pair of shoes that was comfortable
Try: As I looked for a pair of comfortable shoes

Here's another was -ing/that sentence. Note how it's has two uses of "was."
Instead of: I was wanting something that was unknown to me.
Try: I wanted something unknown to me.

Start and began are two more words that get thrown in a lot:

Instead of: She began describing the kinds of dessert she likes.
Try: She described the kinds of dessert she likes.

Here are more dead wood examples. As you read each one, see if you can rewrite each one in your head to make it cleaner before you read my rewrite.

Keep in mind that there is no right answer here. You might come up with a better way to cut the dead wood than I did.

Dead wood: There were two or three coaches who were eyeing me as a player for their teams.
Cleaned up: Two or three coaches eyed me as a recruit.

Dead wood: throughout this time
Cleaned up: now

Dead wood: the manner in which
Cleaned up: the way

Dead wood: I wasn’t successful in putting
Cleaned up: I couldn’t put

Dead wood: was the result of being embarrassed
Cleaned up: was from embarrassment

Dead wood: began to be
Cleaned up: became

Dead wood: I asked all of the questions that were troubling me
Cleaned up: I asked all the questions troubling me

Dead wood: Felt like . . . . to me.
Cleaned up: Felt like [cut “to me”]

Dead wood: Because of the love that I felt for them
Cleaned up: Because of my love for them OR Because I loved them

Dead wood: Struggled with the ability to
Cleaned up: Struggled to

Dead wood: At the time when
Cleaned up: When

Dead wood: Is going to
Cleaned up: Will

Dead wood: I wasn’t able to
Cleaned up: I couldn’t

Dead wood: throughout the duration of
Cleaned up: throughout OR during

To avoid the dead wood traps, do a search of your manuscript for words like would, was, that, start, began, there was, and any others you notice that have become "pet" words for you. (I tend to over use "just," for example. I had to cut a couple from this post!)

Try to rephrase each sentence you find, using new words that are more effective. A lot of the time, you'll be able to cut the problem words out altogether. Other times, you'll come up with powerful verbs that make a punch.

And in the end, your efforts will be obvious . . . because your readers won't notice your words.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Mighty Genre

I did a series of posts on genres and gave a few tips on how to write in certain genres I know a bit about.

I like genre fiction in all its variety. I even like the genres I don't write, but enjoy reading. Lately, there has been quite a stir on several local blogs regarding genre, snubbery, snobbery, and lit elitists on all sides.

Someone once asked me what I wrote. The shortest and easiest answer back then was "romance." As if that one word bottles up everything that goes into one of my books and then slaps itself, a little stickered label, onto the bottle.

As I've branched out and become more prolific, I wonder about labels. I've been to conferences where I've been paraded around as the romance author and everyone is thrilled to have me there representing that genre. I've been to others where any of us who wrote romance stuttered, and stammered, and tried to deny what we wrote.

Why? Why would any writer in any genre feel less than worthy? Why would I cringe to tell people I wrote romance? Is there really something so wrong with love that I feel I must hide the fact that I write it and pay penance when anyone catches me writing it? Even now, when my genre has shifted to the classification of YA and middle grade (which is also either applauded or snubbed depending on the audience) I am still--in effect--writing romance.

I believe love works. It's everywhere and affects everyone. It's there between parents and children, between friends, between sisters, brothers, and grandparents, and yes--even between a man and a woman. Love exists. So we write about it. Just as childhood exists. Fear, mystery, days of fanciful thinking and day dreaming, science, days where we need a little pick me up, or days where we need information on how to build a playhouse . . . those things all exist and as writers, we write about them. We record those moments to let others in the world know they are not singular in their thoughts and needs. Writing connects humanity in a way that offers validity to the existance of humanity.

What we choose to write will appeal to someone, somewhere. We should make no apologies for that.

I met a guy on the train when I was comin' out. It was one of those things that kind of makes you mad. I was out on the platform — I was in pants and coat that didn't match but I was riding first class. I was making conversation with a guy who asked me, "Goin' to California?"
"Yeah, I'm goin' out there."
"What business are you in?"
I said "The motion-picture business."
"What do you do?"
I said "I make animated cartoons."
"It was like saying I sweep latrines." "Some people make you mad, and you want to prove something to them even though they mean nothing to you. I thought of that guy... when we had the premiere of Snow White. --Walt Disney

If you write what you love and write it the very best way you know how, you will never have to apologize for it.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Capping Revisited

by Annette Lyon

Last week's post about capitalizing (and capping incorrectly) sparked a few reader questions, so today I'll address those.

Generally speaking, compass directions are not capitalized. If I give someone directions to my house, I tell them to turn north at this street and west on that one, all lowercase.

But there are (rare) times when you do capitalize those words, and that's when they're being used as a name for specific, a large area that is known by that name.

For example, in the mid-1800s, there was a huge chunk of the country in North America (capping "north" here because it's part of the name of a continent) known as "the West."

If someone was heading out to seek their fortune, they were heading out West or to the West. It's a bit tricky in these cases, because grammatically, you could still use the term as you would a compass direction at the same time you're using it as a name.

But even in 1843, if someone gave directions on how to reach their cabin in the woods, they'd say, "Go west, past the two big oaks," not, "Go West."

When in doubt on this one, it's pretty safe to use lowercase. The exceptions are pretty rare.

Human/human and Alien/alien
The usage in your work will determine which you use.

By and large, if you're just referring to regular people on this planet and the idea of Martians, you'd use lowercase: human and alien.

However, if you're writing a science fiction piece and there are two distinct factions working together or fighting one another, you'd probably distinguish the groups by capping them: the Humans and the Aliens.

You could also be more creative and call your two groups something else altogether, and you'd cap whatever name you came up with, just like you cap American and Soviet.

Little People/little people
I wasn't sure on this one, so I did a little digging. It appears that either could be considered correct.

In my mind, it depends on what you mean by the term. Are you describing someone who has dwarfism, or are you describing them as one of a group of people who have dwarfism?

I know that's a thin line of distinction, but in my case, I'd err on the side of capitalizing this one, which would acknowledge the group and individual identity more than just a condition.

This one is much like the cultural and linguistic group of Deaf people, who prefer to have the term capitalized because it acknowledges their cultural identity rather than defining them solely by their lack of hearing, as "deaf" (lowercase) does.

Irish Folk Tales/Irish folk tales
This one is pretty straight-forward. Folk tales are simple nouns, so you don't capitalize them. You wouldn't capitalize Irish Beer or Irish Books.

"Irish," however, is obviously capitalized as a nationality.

You'd put it like this: Irish folk tales

The only exception is if you were to find a book on the shelf with that title, in which case capitalization rules with titles would come into play: Irish Folk Tales.

Daisies/daisies, Lily/lily, Oak/oak
Types of plants aren't considered names, per se. Use lowercase. Sometimes species or varieties might have a capitalized term in them because the extra term might be a name, such as with Japanese maple.

As for Emily M's question:
How do you feel about deliberate flaunting of the capitalization rules in order to Make a Point or maybe Be Sarcastic? It's also got a kind of nineteenth-century, Emily Dickinson sort of appeal to it, when it's done deliberately and well. I'm not talking about not knowing the rules; I'm talking about knowing them and choosing to manipulate them for effect . . . does that bug you too?

My opinion:
If done with obvious intent, not haphazardly, and it's clear that the writer knows the rules, then no, it doesn't bother me at all. As you said, the result can be very effective when done well.

But I don't recommend trying this kind of thing unless you really do know the rules and you're doing it with a definite purpose in mind, because it's painfully obvious when a writer stumbles because they don't know the rules in the first place. That's not effective; it's sloppy.

English is a fun language to play with. Shakespeare is known for the way he toyed with it, broke rules, and made up new words. He was a master.

If you're a beginning writer, I suggest having an apprenticeship period where you write straight, learning the skills you need.

Then, when you've learned the ropes, go ahead and have fun braiding, fraying, and tying knots into the ropes to see what you can do. Just don't go overboard with breaking rules. That can get annoying.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

To Cap or Not to Cap

by Annette Lyon

The longer I'm working at this editing thing, the more I see the same problems in manuscripts. They're so common, so pervasive, that I'll be blogging about them for the next little while. Then maybe I'll get to stop fixing them in future jobs (one can always hope . . .).

I'm not talking about plot, characterization, or conflict. I'm talking about the little things that clutter up the manuscript and make you look less professional. It's time to pick up the old feather duster and clean-up your manuscript.

Today's topic:

Don't capitalize unless you're supposed to.

In English, we capitalize proper nouns (names) such as John, Seattle, or Yellowstone Park.

We do not capitalize other nouns, no matter how important we think the noun is.

In other words, even though you may adore your parents, don't write, "my Mother and Father." They may be fantastic people, but they're still your mother and father—lowercase.

If you take a cruise, you're on a ship, not a Ship. I've seen writers capitalize random nouns like Leader, Car, and Room. (No, no, and no.)

If the word isn't at the beginning of a sentence or an actual name of something, use lowercase.

So when do you capitalize?
When a word is acting as a title in the sentence. That means the word you're capping must come immediately before the person's name:

During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln was in office.

You capitalize "president" here because it's attached to Lincoln's name. It's acting as a title, as if it's part of his name.

When "president" appears elsewhere in the sentence, just describing Lincoln, (and no matter how important the role of president is to the nation or the world), you don't capitalize it:

Abraham Lincoln was the president of the United States during the Civil War.

Now back to the mother/father thing. If you refer to your parents using "mother" and "father" as names, then you do capitalize them:

"Hey, Mom, look! He's hitting me!"

Hint: Do you have "my" in front of "mom" or "dad"? If so, use lowercase:

"I told my mom that he was hitting me."

In this case, you're describing/modifying your parent. So "mom" or "dad" aren't acting as names or titles, but as regular nouns, like "my book" or "my computer."

(And remember, we don't capitalize regular nouns!)

Most writers I've worked with err on the side of capitalizing too much, so when in doubt, you're probably safe making it lowercase.

If you adored the truck you drove in college, sorry; it's still just a (lowercase) truck.

Unless it's a (capitalized) Dodge Ram. And unless you named it (yes, cap it!) Bruno.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

101 Best Websites for Writers

by Precision Editing Staff

If you are currently submitting your novel or non-fiction piece, you are probably reading everything you can get your hands on about writing, editing, and finding that publisher or agent. On this blog, we frequently recommend or refer to Writer's Digest--a magazine and on-line newsletter that contains valuable and up-to-date information about the publishing industry (kind of like this blog . . .).

Recently, Writer's Digest posted the top 101 Best Websites for Writers. So your job researching the market just got a little easier.


And, if you feel so inclined, you can nominate our Writing On the Wall blog for next year by emailing writersdig with “101 Best Websites” as the subject (deadline is January 1, 2009).

Thursday, July 10, 2008

First Person is HOT

By Heather Moore

In the last few years, I’ve noticed more and more books written in first person. And not just YA or Middle Grade either. Suspense novels, literary, mainstream, humorous, etc. you name it—they are being written in first person.

Also, hot on the market is present tense. Why? Is it is just a trend? Or is it here to stay? Traditionally, YA is usually written in first person—the woes of a teenager dramatizing every single detail of her traumatic life . . . you get the picture.

Recently I interviewed an author that I met at the L.A. BEA Expo (Diana Spechler, author of Who by Fire, Harper Perennial). We’ll post her interview in September in conjunction with her new release. But when I asked Spechler why she wrote in first person, present tense, she said, “In general, I like first person because of the sense of intimacy it creates. Whenever I start writing in third person, I have to ask myself what exactly I’m shying away from. Sometimes I let myself write in third person if the intimacy of first is daunting to the point of paralyzing me; after all, it’s better to write something than to write nothing. For some reason, I think my sentences are prettier when I use third person, but there’s an immediacy and an openness that only first person can create.”

For a traditionalist like me, it’s taken some getting used to. I don’t read a ton of YA, so when I do open a favorite author’s book and see that it’s in first person, I hesitate. Then I dive in and by the second or third page, I don’t notice anymore. In fact, I’m caught up very quickly in the characterization. Just as Spechler said, it really does bring an intimacy and immediacy to the character.

Here’s a list of NY Times Bestselling authors who write in first person that may surprise you:

Jodi Picoult (first person and present tense, and get this—Perfect Match alternates with chapters in third person, present tense)

Jason Wright (first person in upcoming book: Recovering Charles)

Lolly Winston (first person, present tense)

Mary Higgins Clark (first person, past tense)

Sue Grafton (first person, past tense)

So, if writing in first person is your natural style, you won’t have to conform to the traditional narrative third person any longer. Write, write, write!

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Benefit of Multiple Opinions

by Annette Lyon

I've said it many times: The single best thing I ever did for my writing was get into an excellent critique group. It gives me the feedback I need to know whether I'm getting close to the mark or whether I'm totally off track.

As you seek feedback, keep one very important thing in mind:

Don't rely on one opinion.

Feedback from one person isn't enough, no matter how good the writer, no matter how experienced or excellent they are.

Here's why: Writing is subjective. There isn't just one right answer. Surrendering to one person's opinion might not be the best way to go.

What if you relied so heavily on one opinion that you overhauled your entire manuscript . . . only to discover after the fact that your book was actually better before your massive revision?

Or what if your original manuscript did need a big revision . . . but in a totally different direction than your only reader suggested?

My critique group is composed of published and award-winning writers who know their stuff. But even they sometimes disagree about whether something should be changed or whether a story element is working. While I usually take their advice (they are frighteningly good at what they do), I've ignored suggestions from every single one of them.

Usually (but not always) that's when the group is split on an opinion, and I take the majority's view to heart. But what if I had only gotten one opinion? What if I relied so heavily on one person that I missed out on the (even better) insights I could have gotten from others?

If you don't have a critique group like mine, don't panic. You still need outside feedback, so seek it out. Just do so from multiple sources.

For example, attend writers conferences and writers meetings, such as local chapters of SCBWI, RWA, and other organizations. Network with other writers and exchange contact information, then swap manuscripts and critique one another.

Go online to find online writing support groups. Many offer critique exchanges. Don't worry that you don't know how to give a good critique; you learn how by doing it. The more you read with a critical eye, the better you'll get at offering helpful advice and at finding weak spots in your own work.

When you're ready, consider having a professional look at it (like one of the editors from Precision Editing Group).

Just be sure to give your work out to multiple sources for feedback. If one source suggests major surgery, hold off and get a second opinion before putting your book under the knife. If sources #2 and #3 agree with #1, then maybe your manuscript really could use some time on the operating table. But what if #2 and #3 agree with one another . . . in disagreeing with #1?

You'll never please every reader, and you shouldn't try to. But the more eyes that look at your work, the wider the perspective and opinions will be. That means your chances will go up that you'll hit closer to the bull's eye with what you're hoping to achieve.

And isn't that every writer's goal?

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Did You Save Your Work Today?

About a month ago, a very good writer buddy of mine (Tristi Pinkston) had been merrily writing and then LOST her work. Software and hardware are not to be trusted. Do not assume they are your friends and will be ready to play any time you boot up your computer. I felt really bad for her.

Did her terrible loss make me assess my own software and hardware? Nope. I am just arrogant like that. Tragedy is for the Greeks and other people, certainly not for me.

I didn't back up anything during Tristi's plight.

But sometimes, the divine forces that be, sigh and take pity on my stupidity, rather than use it as a means to punish me like they normally do. I have a day job and had used my work-provided laptop to save my writing. My work determined that those of us with company owned laptops were at a risk for loss or theft and decided to back up all documents and files on a daily basis from our laptops.

I didn't think my employer wanted to save all my writing on company servers so I decided it was time to move all my writing over to my home PC. I moved everything.

Three days later when I was in the office, I turned on my computer and what did I see? The blue screen of death. All the software on my laptop crashed and burned. I lost everything.

Instead of being irritated or grumbling for now needing to rebuild all the links and email correspondence for my work, I breathed deep sighs of relief. The kind of relief one can only feel when they narrowly missed disaster and they know they don't deserve to have survived it. All my important stuff was saved. All my writing and irreplaceable stuff was safe.

I am the profiteer of lucky coincidence. But will you be if your computer flashes its blue screen of death?

The moral of this story: do not assume your flashdrive is incorruptible. Do not assume your harddrive is like a safety deposit box locked in a bank's vault. Do not assume Greeks are the only ones with tragedy.

Right now, while you're thinking about it, back up your work to two other viable save places.

You think writing that first draft is tough? Wait until you have to write that first draft twice.