Writerly Ramblings

There are some consistent issues that crop up when I’m reading manuscripts, so I thought I’d go over a few of them in hopes it clears the fog and makes you so brilliant that you get a five-book offer, millions in an advance, and your own private island.

Or simply helps you become a better writer…

The “S” factor

In the case where you want to show possession with someone’s name, like Miles, you would add an apostrophe, “Beagle, put down Miles’s margarita and make your own.” The trick here is that you do this for an individual.

If you’re talking about a family name, like Adams, the possessive would simply add the apostrophe and no S…“Beagle, I realize the Adams’ mai tais are the best in town, but that’s no reason to ask them to adopt you.”

If you’re using a classical name, like Socrates, then you don’t add the S. “Beagle, I’m certain Socrates’ gin and tonics were not made with engine grease.”

Do keep in mind this is for the US. UK rules may (and probably do) differ. Lastly, I won’t tie you to a post and drizzle you with cheap vodka if you don’t follow these to the letter. But if you do, I’ll know that you got it goin’ on. Besides, knowing how to use words and their best friends, punctuation, grammar, syntax, are the tools of your trade, so it’s only logical that you employ them with confidence.

Don’t Fear the First Draft

How many of you avoid putting something – anything – down on cyber paper because you believe it has to be perfect? Come on, be honest. Don’t you ever say to yourself, “Self, I’m going to let this idea/chapter/plot ricochet around my cerebral hard drive to the point of perfection (or to the point where it makes sense), then I’ll begin writing.”

Give yourself a break. Nothing you do for the first time is perfect. First time I baked a cake, I forgot to grease the cake pan, so I had a gorgeous cake (I lie – it was flat as a pancake) that refused to budge from the pan. We ended up eating it in splorky bites right out of the pan. Putting it down on cyber paper doesn’t cement it in concrete; it merely gives you a visual reference to what’s been blasting around in your head. I’ve had plenty ideas that sounded fabo in my brain, but didn’t work on paper. But I had to write it down in order to realize that.

The physical act of writing gives your story a measure of reality, in that you’ve taken your thoughts from concept to commitment. You have something to compare – how does the idea in my head look when it’s in a semi-permanent state? Heh, thank the Cosmic Muffin for the Delete button, eh?

First drafts are supposed to suck stale Twinkie cream because you’re in the process of telling yourself the story. Our cerebral hard drives can only retain a certain amount of new ideas for chapters before it starts to degrade. You gotta get it down on paper and give that hard drive a break.

The flip side to this coin is that a first draft is not your final draft. Before you send your baby out into the world, you’ll have dozens of rewrites. I see too many manuscripts that appear to have gone from the author’s brain to cyber paper so quickly that the ink is trying to invert on itself. Please, dear writers, don’t scare your cyber ink.

Dialog Formatting

Here’s a silly thing that manages to drive me bonkers. It’s helpful to remember that, just like punctuation, formatting is there to make things easier for the reader. Nothing more, nothing less. It’s maddening when writers want to get all experimental with their formatting, and it does nothing but make the reader toss the book against the wall.

Dialog formatting is one of those elements of writing that isn’t talked about very much. But if you do it wrong, you’ll have your readers scratching their heads.

Dialog formatting is designed to tell the reader who’s doing the talking. I did a post on this awhile back, so I won’t repeat myself, other than drive home the point that if you have a character taking some sort of action before speaking, then keep it in the same paragraph. Example:

The beagle looked around the mess that was once the office.

“Is all this stuff going to Pittsburgh, or are you tossing it?” (Right away, I’m confused as to who’s doing the talking)

Overworked and Underpaid Editor glared at the beagle.

“What’s it to you? You’re not going to Pittsburgh. And before you ask, I’m taking the blender and salt shaker.” (Same here)

Now, admittedly, it’s easy to follow the conversation, but if you have a whole page of dialog, things begin to get confusing, which forces your reader to re-read the passage in order to discern who’s doing the action. It gets even more insane with several characters. The action is your lead-in sentence, so it stays on the same line because it refers to that character. So now the above dialog looks like this:

The beagle looked around the mess that was once the office. “Is all this stuff going to Pittsburgh, or are you tossing it?”

Overworked and Underpaid Editor glared at the beagle. “What’s it to you? You’re not going to Pittsburgh. And before you ask, I’m taking the blender and salt shaker.”

No confusion here at all. Aaaaand…no dialog tags.

Dialog Tags

I’ve written about dialog tags over the years, but it bears repeating because I still see a lot of confusion about effective tagging. You can read those here. The important thing to remember is that tags are supposed to be invisible. They are there to let the reader know who’s doing the talking. Tags aren’t meant to do much heavy lifting, so I recommend avoiding the temptation to use adverbs with your tag.

Things like:

“You forgot the limes?” Overworked and Underpaid screamed excitedly.

“Don’t have a cow,” the beagle barked annoyingly.

…tend to annoy readers because it sounds sophomoric after a while. Everything in moderation. Let your talent shine through, rather than depending on adverbs and tags to convey emotion.

If you want to keep your tags as invisible as possible, stick with the standard, “he/she said.”

Going tagless:  There are the times when you need no tags at all – especially if you only have two people talking. Affixing every sentence of dialog with “he said,” creates a ka-thunk cadence. Your readers aren’t stupid, and they can follow easily enough. The trick is to mix up your uses of dialog via action/lead-in lines; letting logic take its course; and tags in order to balance out the flow and cadence.

Don’t be afraid to read your writing out loud. That is where it’s easiest to ferret out any ka-thunkery.

A writer’s bestest buddy (besides a fabulous agent and editor) is a writing manual. I keep a copy of Chicago Manual of Style, Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, and Margaret Shertzer’s The Elements of Grammar on my desk. And I refer to them all the time.

Ya Can’t Fix Laziness – But I Can Try

Sure, I’ve heard all the excuses – “Why should I bother if my editor can fix it?” – and it makes me want to scream. You’re a writer, so it’s vital that you know the tools of your trade. I can’t tell you how thrilled it makes me when I receive a clean manuscript that requires precious little editing. It makes me love that author even more than I already do. It also gives me confidence that I can make recommendations and they’ll understand how to do the rewrites in a professional manner.

So go out and be brilliant – the world is waiting for excellent books.

4 Responses to Writerly Ramblings

  1. John Allan says:

    That’s the first time I have heard of writing a name ending in s in the possessive with an apostrophe, but no additional s, because it is a classical name, Perhaps because I’m British. Or simply, perhaps, because I have never been aware of it.

    But the tendency to append the apostrophe to possessive singular nouns that end in s, without the additional s, is one of my grammar hang-ups. Particularly when, as is all too common, it appears in professional media.

  2. Laura W. says:

    🙂 Thank you for covering my pet peeves about the “s”! It drives me nuts when I see that. But I’m sure it drives other people nuts when I make them read things like “she ran quickly.” I’m working on it…

    If I ignore or forget everything else in this post, I promise I’ll remember “splorky.”

  3. Those apostrophe Ssses really kill me — they are a bane! But PLEASE broadcast the fact that you never use an apostrophe for a simple plural. I see painted signs with that error almost daily and it drives me nuts. BTW, it’s good to see you letting the fingers work the keyboard again, Lynn. Hope your move goes well.

    Regarding First Drafts, I would only add they they are the most enjoyment there is in writing. Rewrites, edits, and surgery don’t fill you with that nice endorphin rush. I’d tell anyone with an idea for a book, to just jump right in and begin to write for the pleasure that’s in it. You can always sort it out later.

  4. Hugh Cook says:

    Sorry, I disagree with your example of the possessive plural of the surname Adams. If the family name is “Adams,” then the plural form of the name is “the Adamses,” and the possessive plural is “the Adamses’ mai tai.” Personally, I would avoid the problem altogether and say the Adams family’s mai tais.

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