From the Editor’s Desk: Adverbial Traps

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Once more, I’ll endeavor to go some of my (somewhat) informed opinion, this time regarding -ly adverbs. I recently elucidated a bit about the pitfalls of using these lovely (see what I did there) adverbs in conjunction with dialogue. He said rudely. She remarked kindly. They laughed loudly. On the surface it seems like these -ly modifiers help the reader to understand how an action is happening. But I say trusting your writing is more important than definitively (I am on a roll) telling your reader how things are happening.

Outside the realm of dialogue, the old -ly’s are much more acceptable. He moved silently. He grabbed it quickly. She moved gracefully. Here they can make things a bit more clear when describing an action. And sometimes you can’t avoid them. But what you can avoid is letting them stand on their own, or using them as an easy out:

-He moved silently, like a olive-drab panther, barely making a noise in the brush.

-He grabbed it so quickly it was in his hands in the space of a blink.

-She moved with precision and grace, every inch the archetype of a ballerina.

The three sentences above probably feel am little more descriptive than the simple   -ly sentences. These are quick simple fixes, but on occasion and -ly adverb isn’t necessary. If you simply (Somebody stop me) say He sat, in the right context, surrounded by effective description, it can be more powerful than any adverbial modifier in existence, and makes the reader feel more involved in the story.

The crux of the argument is the same argument against over-describing a characters physical attributes. You want the reader to have a personal experience when he reads your work. Taking him or her by the hand and describing, to a T, the exact and complete physical appearance of your character, I,or any other reader, can’t allow our imaginations to stretch out. The same applies to the -ly adverbs. A little physical description is good, helps create an image for the reader. Like a coloring book you supply the lines, and let the reader fill in the color. Again, same concept with the -ly words.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Trust your writing. Give the readers some credit. Most of us are smart enough not to ruin your narrative if you let us fill in some of the blanks.

Once more, this is my opinion, for what its worth. Take it. leave it. But there it is.

Signing Off.

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From the Editor’s Desk: On Dialogue

Rather than bore you with grammatical nuances, today I just want to look at something purely stylistic. Dialogue, arguably, is the most important piece of character development in any lengthy work of fiction (or non-fiction for that matter). Inarguably it’s in the top three. It can sharply illuminate a personality by magnifying how that character interacts with others, or in certain cases his or her self. Graphic novels and comic books rely heavily on verbal interaction between characters, and us prose-hucksters can learn a thing or two from the pages of Marvel, DC, and the like.

I’ll climb down from my pulpit in a minute, but in a society that’s increasingly more obsessed with immediacy and the now-now-now, there may be a reason for the renaissance of graphic novels, comic books, and image-heavy amalgamations of art and prose. Dialogue is the fastest way an author can move a story. Stylistically, linguistically, bouncing words off of characters propels a story faster than anything else.

To keep your dialogue compelling, there’s a few guidelines to follow. I will (un-modestly) share 3 key things to keep in mind when figuring out what your characters want to say:

1) Accents – use ’em at your peril – One of the hardest things to do with dialogue as a writer is make written words sound organic and authentic, like someone’s really talking. We may be tempted to add an accent or dialectic conventions to a speaker. It’s been done, both poorly and effectively, but be wary: the fastest way to turn your character into a caricature is through hokey accents. You’ve probably read Harry Potter. Hagrid, Fleur, and Viktor Krum are all examples of poor dialogue execution, and characters (at least in the prose) marred by a stylistic choice.

To me, a less-is-more approach works the best to embody accents. Maybe throw in an “’em” instead of a them, or an “ain’t” here or there. This works way more effectively than the full-on Transylvania or John Wayne treatment. Some of the most successful authors (Stephen King, Dan Abnett) will have another character react to their speech (leaving off –r sounds or turning -a’s into –o’s) which, to me, is a much more effective way to portray an accent than directly in the dialogue. Food for thought.

2) Contractions – embrace them – I’m sure it’s advice you’ve heard before, but most human beings include a lot of contractions when they talk. Would you tell someone you “can not make it to their party”? No, you’d say “I can’t make it.” When a person reads your work, they’re imagining someone talking when they see those magical quotation marks. If there’s no contractions in between them, it feels like they’re reading someone trying to make dialogue rather than listening to a conversation.

Use this to your advantage Sci-Fi or Fantasy writers! You’ll notice famous (or infamous) aliens, robots, etc. never used contractions. Mr. Spock, Data the Android, countless computerized voices, they all avoided shortening word combinations. It makes them feel less human, cold, which was precisely the point with most of these characters.

3) Identifiers – avoid them, or keep it simple – Identifiers are the literary equivalent of a necessary evil. The “he said” “she said” of the literary world. Context is a much better medium for indicating who is speaking. Trust the readers to intelligently determine the course of a scene with your description and pacing. In a two-character conversation they’re entirely unnecessary. The ping-pong back and forth dialogue feels snappy and natural. With a group of three or more, however, identifiers sometimes feel necessary, and they are.

Try to stick to simple “he said” or “she said” and don’t fall into an adverbial trap of adding “slyly, quietly, or loudly”. It’ll be much more effective to let your description of the scene describe how things are said, rather than relying on the oft-dreaded -ly.

Thank you for once more listening to me opine on writing. Take everything I say with a grain of salt, it’s all simple experience speaking from a lifetime of reading and a critical eye.

If you have any questions about writing or editing, feel free to reach out. Complaints…go ahead and write them down. And then throw them in the trash can.

Signing off.

From the Editor’s Desk: The Perils of Punctuation

2b5b8f2abf53c88f9e068be4216433e93c9191f3115b0005f73ae3c26c0b06deOh punctuation, she is a harsh mistress indeed. A great equalizer, because all writers and authors are subject to the same stolid rules, no matter how successful or renowned they might be. There’s a bit of stylistic wiggle room, if you’re brave, but mostly their guidelines blanket anyone who traffics in the written word. Early on we all learn about commas, periods, periods, parentheses, colons, semi-colons, and the like. We all know the basics, where they go, and what they mean. The trouble is making them align properly in tricky situations like dialogue, and how to tweak and adjust to help the reader’s ride through your prose go easy and smooth.

I’ll endeavor to address some of the issues I’ve seen more commonly, and some that I just want to address. I’m writing. You’re reading. If you want my somewhat informed opinion on any other matters of grammar, please let me know:

1) Commas, and The Oxford Comma: When you list a group of three or more things in a row, you may or may not include a comma preceding the final and (i.e The crowd was loud, raucous, boisterous, and foul-smelling). I’m not going to spark the debate. I’m not going to climb up on a soap box. The Oxford comma is listed as “optional” so that’s what it is. I choose to use it, you may not. Why is it the Oxford comma? Because it was traditionally used by the Oxford University Press.

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Oxford or not, commas can be excellent pacing devices in your writing. Don’t make the mistake of running sentences on and on, or of smattering commas around willy-nilly. That will turn a reader off faster than poor spelling (or maybe just as fast). But if you’re trying to create suspense, focus in on a particular moment in the prose, or slow down the pace, don’t shy away from using commas to control the speed of your writing. It can be surprisingly effective.

2) Dialogue Punctuation: While it seems straightforward and grammatically established, properly (or even better, effectively) punctuating dialogue is a key component for any kind of writing. You must clearly depict which character is speaking, or the reader may get frustrated and confused.

The easiest way for me to break it down is into three key details (hooray, another list):

a. Treat anything the speaker says as a sentence on its own, contained within the quotations. Capitalize when you start, even if you have description or an identifier preceding the dialogue, and place all punctuation within the quotes (as long as its pertinent to what’s being said), even if you’re ending the sentence with a quotation. It’s permissible to have quotation marks hanging outside of the last period. That’s English for you.

– Felix stood up and proudly stated, “Poor bloody infantry is a state of mind.”

b. The commas make a stunning return. If you precede a line of dialogue with an identifier (as seen above), you must separate it with a comma from the text of the dialogue. If you choose to divide or pause in the middle of the dialogue, close with a comma, and then re-open with a comma. No need for a period or capitalization on the second half unless it completes a thought:

– “I don’t understand,” he said, eyebrows furrowed in confusion, “why you think a rubber chicken is ineffective for self-defense.”

Now here’s a wrinkle: If you close the sentence with a modifier outside of the quotation, then you close the quotation with a comma, even though it closes a thought:

-“I can’t believe he hit me with a rubber chicken,” he said

c. Always start a new paragraph when a new character starts speaking. This is the one I see go wrong the least…but when it goes wrong it is very noticeable. This is the easiest way to differentiate among a group of people speaking to each other, and like most punctuation it sounds simple but can be very tricky if you introduce interruptions or clipped speech.

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3) Dashes, Hyphens, and Italics: Less punctuation and more stylistic, dashes and hyphens are commonly used in prose writing to indicate sudden stops (M-Dash), describe ranges (N-Dash), and helps us make fun combo-words…like combo-word (hyphen). Some standard guidelines (WordPress is not a punctuation tool, so use your imagination):

Hyphens – Connect compund words (like-minded)

N-Dash – Describes ranges (July-October)

M-Dash – Can be used like commas to separate a unique idea from the main clause of a sentence:

“Utilizing a rubber chicken—rather than mace or nunchaku—is a safer alternative.”

– Sets an inserted thought or clause apart the main clause:

“The tall man swung the rubber chicken—was he a ninja?—and the masked man stopped and stared.

– Shows when dialogue is interrupted:

“I swung the rubber chicken with all my–”

“Wait, did you say rubber chicken?”

Similar to hyphens and dashes, Italics can serve a mutlitude of purposes for an author. They can delineate internal monologue from external action, can serve as exclamation in dialogue without the use of an exclamation point, and serve to identify a “story within a story” when a character reads a letter or a journal entry, for example. But don’t over do it, or the italics will lose their power, and the reader will get annoyed. Trust me. I’ve been there.

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Punctuation matters, and not just to keep people from thinking you’re a cannibal. Keep that in mind fellow writing enthusiasts. It seems easy and standardized, but the tricksy English language has twists and turns it can take a life time to master. Just don’t make any of the big errors. Because those are distracting. And a distracted reader is not a reader for very long.

Signing Off.

From the Editor’s Desk: Internal Monologue

One of the joys of reading frequently and taking a hack-handed, bludgeoning swing at writing myself is seeing different conventions used in different ways. The one I’d like to discuss today is a favorite for the snarky and the serious, the scary and the scurrilous: internal monologue (or if the characters a bit nutty…dialogue). When do we use it? How do we use it? Is there an accepted mechanic for translating it into text?

The only valid answer you could get from anybody, anywhere, is I don’t know. And that’s because there’s no right or wrong way, mechanically speaking, to go about having your character talk with (or to) him (or her) self. As with all writing, you can probably do whatever the hell you want and still have a shot at being canonized (Anyone ever read Joyce?) but for the purposes of cohesive and narrative writing, it boils down to about six possibilities. This broad-strokes explanation is limited to third-person past-tense type writing, of course. If you take the challenge of writing in the first person, the inner monologue should happen organically, since we’re basically juxtaposing first-person sentiment into a third-person piece. Present-tense probably requires a few more identifiers, but can get a bit explanation-heavy if you aren’t careful.

Oh the mechanics are glorious indeed…but mechanics are only half the battle. The way you present the internal monologue can say a lot about the type of character that’s talking. He (or she) might be witty, pensive, bitter, reluctant, wistful, or any combination of those or a host of other emotional states. If you’re going to go the internal monologue route, make sure you give some thought to the presentation. It can make or break your prose, and the character you’re developing, in a manner so subtle you may not notice it at first. And on the flip side, it can make your rakish rogue or haughty heroine into an unforgettable pillar of the written word. You might not think so in a text medium, but presentation, as ever, always counts.

Below I’ll lay out the six options, and what they may communicate to the reader:

1) First Person Present; Italicized; With Identifier

He watched the coin fall into the water with a gentle splash. I’ve done it again, he thought. Thank god wishes aren’t fishes. I’d need a bigger pond.

– As a rule, I don’t really like identifiers. I feel like they bog down moments in writing that should flow smoothly and quickly. But with internal monologue, it allows you to dictate the pace to your reader, and slow them down. Throwing in a “he thought” or “she mused” can establish your tone, and give the inner monologue an even, controlled calmness, in a moment of thoughtful or wistful reflection for a character.

2) First Person Present; Italicized; No Identifier

He watched the coin fall into the water with a gentle splash. I’ve done it again. Thank god wishes aren’t fishes. I’d need a bigger pond.

-My personal favorite. Italicizing inner monologue is an effective way of separating inner-most thoughts from regular text, and not breaking it up with an identifier keeps it whole and complete. This approach helps the reader feel connected to the character, and can create sympathy for even the nastiest of anti-heroes. I recommend this for the smarmy, wise-cracking characters who are really good at heart. It helps the reader build rapport through the bitterness and acidity that makes the person so enjoyable.

3) First Person Present; Not Italicized; WIth Identifier

He watched the coin fall into the water with a gentle splash. I’ve done it again, he thought. Thank god wishes aren’t fishes. I’d need a bigger pond.

-As I mentioned, I’m a proponent of italics for inner monologue, but I’ve seen it work effectively without them. Keeping the identifier helps set an explanatory tone I wouldn’t recommend for main antagonists or protagonists. If you have a side-chapter, or an event explained through a short-lived, very minor character, this is the most effective and efficient way to get through it.

4) First Person Present; Not Italicized; No Identifier

He watched the coin fall into the water with a gentle splash. I’ve done it again. Thank god wishes aren’t fishes. I’d need a bigger pond.

-This approach always feels very literary to me. Very artistic. It also works well in stories with one very central character, and can help solidify the idea that the narrative of this book revolves around a single person. eschewing the identifier and the italics brings the inner thoughts of the protagonist into the prose, like they aren’t separate from the words. Not for the faint of heart, but a fun mechanic to play with and potentially a powerful convention for a story.

5) Third Person Past; Not Italicized; WIth Identifier

He watched the coin fall into the water with a gentle splash. He’d done it again, he thought. Thank god wishes weren’t fishes. He’d need a bigger pond.

-This always feels weird and super-explanatory to me. I always fall on the side of “show me” not “tell me” in writing, and this is telling of the highest degree. It can bring across a simple-mindedness, however, that might be effective in separating important, or high-IQ characters, from characters with less going on between the ears. An excellent way to portray the inner monologue of an obedient flunky or clumsy servant, this approach creates distance between the reader and the character, which may not exactly be a bad thing.

6) Third Person Past; Not Italicized; No Identifier

He watched the coin fall into the water with a gentle splash. He’d done it again. Thank god wishes weren’t fishes. He’d need a bigger pond.

-This is the ultra-narrative style that serves best when speed matters. If you want to get through a scene quickly and efficiently, without too much attachment, this is the way to go.

I’ll endeavor to bring you more little eccentricities From The Editor’s Desk; this is only volume two
In other exciting news, I’m pleased to announce I’m starting up an editing business for books, short stories, dissertations, reports, etc. If it has words, I’ll read it and let you know if it can be better. I’m dipping my toe currently, but I’ve got a few credentials:

-BA English Literature (Cum Laude) from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas
-Freelance Sports Columnist and Public Interest Reporter for The Las Vegas Review-Journal, Henderson Home News, and Boulder City News 2000-2008

I’ve already edited a first draft of a romance novel (attestation forthcoming) and a potential self-help style non-fiction book from an already-published author. If you’re interested, please contact me through this blog or e-mail me at gentlesandman@yahoo.com. I’m currently looking to get experience mostly, so if you think I might have something to offer after reading this post feel free to contact me.

From the Editor’s Desk: Past Participle and Past Tense

One of my all-time favorite publishing houses is the Black Library. They do mostly licensed science fiction and fantasy out of the United Kingdom. I’ve read a great deal of fiction, non-fiction, classics, etc. from across the pond, but only when reading the action-packed militaristic stories from the Library did I finally notice how jarring their differing uses of past participles and tenses for verbs can be. Picture this: A blazing laser gun battle illuminated the sky like a kaleidoscope of fireworks, almost hypnotizing the running soldier. Explosions erupted on all sides, leaving him blind, deaf, and disoriented, as he desperately dived for cover. He heard-

Wait, dived? Why not dove?

Maybe it makes me a bit snobbish, but the first few times I read this it pulled me right out of the fictive dream. The next few pages I just kept thinking why would the author use the archaic form instead of the new one? It passed quickly, but after I put the book down it still nagged at me. And as I read more from the Library, I found more discrepancies: They swinged clubs and cudgels, not swung. They swimmed across the murky swamp, not swam. The tip of the flamethrower was lighted, not lit. There may be more I’m omitting, but the point remains: It was distracting enough to pull me out of the scene, so how can I avoid it in my own writing, or use it to my own advantage.

A little bit of research revealed my original hypothesis as correct: these participial and tense changes are a North American tradition. Strangely, some have lagged behind others in social acceptance. Swimmed sounds silly to even the most untrained ear, but up until ~1960 dived was considered correct, and dove would have been marked wrong on your U.S. English Grammar Exam (or more likely essay).

The typical rule from this arm-chair editor: when in doubt, change it in your prose (unless you’re writing in the UK, then do as you please). For dialogue, it opens up some interesting options, however. Any character from, or who learned English in, North America should always use the adjusted tense. But, if your work features a speaker from (or who learned English in) the UK, having them employ these vernacular affectations could lend a taste of authenticity to the character, particularly if your work is set in a specific time period.

I’ll endeavor to bring you more little eccentricities From The Editor’s Desk; this is only volume one.
In other exciting news, I’m pleased to announce I’m starting up an editing business for books, short stories, dissertations, reports, etc. If it has words, I’ll read it and let you know if it can be better. I’m dipping my toe currently, but I’ve got a few credentials:

-BA English Literature (Cum Laude) from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas
-Freelance Sports Columnist and Public Interest Reporter for The Las Vegas Review-Journal, Henderson Home News, and Boulder City News 2000-2008

I’ve already edited a first draft of a romance novel (attestation forthcoming) and a potential self-help style non-fiction book from an already-published author. If you’re interested, please contact me through this blog or e-mail me at gentlesandman@yahoo.com. I’m currently looking to get experience mostly, so if you think I might have something to offer after reading this post feel free to contact me.