Thursday, July 30, 2009
There is a lot of disinformation, misrepresentation, narrow-minded opinion stated as fact, ego inflation, and just plain ugliness out there.
It made me stop and wonder why I couldn't find "popular" blogs from of the better writers and editors I know. No, actually, it made me stop and wonder why I couldn't find any blogs at all from the great writers and editors I know.
Did you ever stop to wonder how a hugely successful, professional, high-powered editor or agent has the time to maintain a busy, followers-hanging-off-every-word blog? That's what I wondered about. I don't know much about agents, but real world editors who work for publishing houses are chasing their own tails off just trying to keep up. They sleep with manuscripts and write backjacket copy during breakfast.
So, I pulled back, edited some fine manuscripts, signed two publishing contracts for short fiction of my own to be included in trade anthologies, and contemplated how entirely different the actual, face-to-face world of publishing and editing is compared to the one plastered on the internet.
Writers really need to know that 99% (just my impression here, I didn't, like*do* a statistical survey) of the wisdom doled out on blogs, writers' forums and self-proclaimed "editors" websites aren't the reality of the publishing world. Real editors don't make fun of the manuscripts they are editing. Real publishers don't hire editors who plaster the internet with "inside" stuff about clients. Real editors know what a participial phrase is and aren't terrified of passive voice. They even know what it is, and it isn't the use of the "to be" verb. :-(
I've made a vow to myself to find some representation of the "real" thing on the internet. And when I do, I'll be sharing it with you.
So, here's my question for you folks.
What is it that you want to know?
I've opened an email account for the blog. Feel free to spam me with questions (just kidding...spam goes to spam purgatory where the little buggers spend the rest of eternity trying to sell each other HUGE members, more pleasure, or phony watches...the get-rich-quickers go straight to hell).
So, here's the email address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Anything to do with grammar, punctuation (see the blog title for a hint :-) ), editing, publishing, dog grooming or astrophysics is okay. See, I'm getting the hang of the Internet. I can be anything I want. :-)
Seriously. Ask away.
Until then, I'll post something later this weekend on commas, since the last three manuscripts that I had edited (I mean, ones I wrote and that were edited by the publisher's copy editor) had a lot of comma suggestions in them. :-) That's a euphemism for "mistakes." And I'm an editor. We all make 'em, folks. So much easier to see other people's little screw ups, though. :-)
Monday, July 6, 2009
I think the most important thing to keep in mind when getting feedback from other writers is that they are writers. That probably sounds self-evident, and you’re probably thinking “Huh?”
Okay, let’s explore writers being writers, then. This is a good thing, right? Yes. Is it a bad thing? Sometimes.
The good thing about it is that other writers share the same goals, tribulations and challenges that you do. They strive to “show not tell,” worry about explanatory dialogue tags, struggle with momentum, flashbacks and info dumps. The really good ones, especially those who have studied the craft of writing in some formal venue (don’t shoot me, I’m a HUGE believer in studying creative writing as a part of an educational experience, either in a classroom or online...more about that on another post), will not only point out the things you can’t see yourself, but they’ll likely have the knowledge and skill set to suggest very specific ways for you to fix things.
That’s the best scenario. A selfless writer who is experienced enough to see your work as the diamond in the rough it truly is and who is able to give you solid, craft-specific advice you can sit down and use is a gem. If you find one, latch onto them and don’t let go.
Nothing gets better than that. And that’s why I belong to writers’ groups and value feedback from other writers highly.
What about the bad things? Sigh, they are more frequent than the good things at times.
Because writers are writers, they often have the most interest in their own work. They comment on your work in order for you to return the favour and comment on their work. They often view all writing through the lens of their own work. They can carry around a lot of baggage. They might avoid all adverbs (so you can’t use them), they may find description boring (so you have to cut yours), they don’t believe in using big words (so you’ve got to remove anything bigger than two syllables), they’re uncomfortable writing present tense (so it doesn’t work in your manuscript), they insist on heavy conflict in their opening chapter (so your opening chapter has to grab them by the throat and make their hearts beat wildly)...
It can be very hard for writers not to inject their own internal writing rules into your manuscript and not advise you to write it the way they would write it. This is mostly an unconscious thing. I doubt many writers are aware they do it and would probably deny it, fervently defending their comments behind the shield of what the “reader” (as in the reader “God” we all try to please) would think.
But you see, once you’ve become a writer, you will never again read as a reader. You become acutely aware of the craft, the presentation, the mechanics behind the fiction, and you no longer represent the reader “God.” You can only represent the writer inside you.
Editors, on the other hand, usually don’t write fiction. There are exceptions of course, but for the most part, they edit. And here is the strength they can bring to your manuscript. Their only focus is your manuscript. They aren’t interested in changing things to the way they would have written it. They’re interested in making your voice and your manuscript stronger by enhancing the unique style and story you’ve created. Editors are well read, very well read in their chosen genre. If you’re dealing with an editor from a publishing house, they represent both the reader and the publisher when they approach your manuscript. If you go with a freelance editor to polish a manuscript, they represent the reader and the potential marketability of your work.
Editors bring a different eye to a manuscript. If you’re careful in your choice of editor, he or she should be bringing a background of experience and very specific knowledge to your novel or book. They should be on top of upcoming trends in the industry. They should have a rock solid and current knowledge base in grammar, spelling, punctuation, usage, and stylistic trends. A good editor leaves personal likes and dislikes with their bedside reading. They approach your manuscript as “yours” and work with your writing, your style and your storyline. During my formal studies in editing, it was considered a cardinal sin to insert your own likes and dislikes into a manuscript. Editors are not supposed edit as writers (even frustrated ones) and revising someone else’s work to make it sound the way “they” would have written it is bad editing.
You should expect an editor to make comments and offer suggestions on pacing, plot, characterization, setting, dialogue, voicing, consistency, clarity, and your own particular style. They will quite likely focus more on what they feel should be fixed, rather than on what works. You should (in my opinion) only present a finished and polished manuscript to an editor. They aren’t there to help you “find” the novel, their job is to take a finished manuscript and assess it, then make recommendations to make it more powerful.
All good, right? Sometimes not.
Because editors generally aren’t writers, they can sometimes recommend changes without understanding the complexity or difficulty of the change.
Change this character to a girl. (Wha..???)
How about writing this from the mother’s POV? (You’ve got to be kidding)
You need a sidekick here, somebody hip and witty to bounce off your protagonist. (If I had a hip, witty sidekick in me, they’d be in the novel, don’t ya think?)
How would this work in present tense? (All 120,000 words of it?)
Okay, some exaggerations, but not unheard of. The one thing that you should always remember with an editor’s suggestions and recommendations is that they are giving them to you the writer to use or not. If you’ve signed a publishing contract and your substantive editor asks for something you feel you just can’t do or that you don’t feel will enhance the manuscript, it’s usually negotiable. Sometimes editors throw big curveballs at writers just to get them thinking. They don’t actually expect you to rewrite the entire novel to add a character, much as they might like the idea. But they do want you to think about the need for something more in the novel, the little hole (or big one) that should be filled with something hip and witty, even if it isn’t a character.
Really good editors want to get you thinking and let you, as the writer, revise the manuscript in your own voice and with your own creativity. The really, really good editors try to phrase their assessment in a way that the writer will recognize the deficit and come up with a stupendous fix. Editors have a lot of faith in the manuscripts they acquire and the writers who write them.
The other, somewhat sensitive, point about editors who are not the acquiring editor at a publishing house is that anybody can call himself or herself an editor. There is no universal, professional standard. The same can be said for the other writers we trust our beloved manuscripts with. But we don’t often “pay” other writers for feedback, so if they don’t know what they’re talking about, meh, big deal. However, if you are paying an editor to comment on your work, I really think you have the right to know if they are qualified to charge you money for it.
Unfortunately, I see folks hanging out their editing shingles all the time. And they are not qualified to do so. They’re often writers who happen to believe they know where a comma should be placed or English Lit grads who think that degree bestows some kind of innate editorial skill set. It doesn’t. Editing is an art, as well as a skill. It requires practice as well as a very specific knowledge base.
I can’t help you much with selecting an editor. I can suggest that you look for experience (in-house or freelance); educational credentials in editing (Publishing post-grad studies are more and more common and designed to supply the publishing industry with potential editors who don’t have to be mentored for years before they can be turned loose on a novel. These are tough courses, I can affirm that, really tough with high standards.); affiliations with editing organizations; or evidence of ongoing education in editing (workshops, conferences, courses). Good editors specialize in a few areas of fiction and should be willing to provide a sample edit of a small part of your manuscript. That is very helpful for both of you to establish if the communication and editing style are a good fit.
To wrap up a very long post, all writers need feedback on their manuscripts. I don’t know any writers who write totally in isolation. Some wait until the entire first draft is complete before they show the manuscript to a selected few other writers. I know of one writer who engages three or four freelance editors to help them hammer out a manuscript before submission. Some writers like to write novels in public, rushing every first draft chapter to their writer buddies for comment. We all work differently.
I value writers’ feedback when a manuscript of mine is finished in first draft and while I’m contemplating the revision process, as well as during revisions. Writers can so succinctly pinpoint craft issues that I’d be lost without their input on my own work.
As an editor, I don’t like to work on “in progress” manuscripts. I only work on completed manuscripts (if possible) since this is the material I’ve been trained to view from an editorial perspective. Providing a writer with possible strategies for improving an already fine manuscript is the role of an editor. If you work with other writers during the development and revision stages of a manuscript, you’ll never fall into the sad state of paying an editor to tell you the manuscript isn’t polished enough to consider publication.
When you do think that manuscript is ready to submit, or you have submitted to a chorus of rejections, that might be the time to look for an editor. But be smart, ask questions, get that sample edit, make sure this editor is working for “your” manuscript.
With other writers, you’ll know quickly which ones have a talent for communicating the strengths and weaknesses of your manuscript to you. If what they say doesn’t make sense, move on. There are some wonderfully skilled writers out there who have the gift of sharing their skills with others. Give them the best you can back.
Final word. Where does that put me, both writer and editor? In a hard place, actually. Being a fiction writer isn’t necessarily seen as bonus in the fiction-editing field. I don’t mention it much. :-) I don’t often mention being an editor to the writers I trade manuscripts with either. I want to interact with them as a writer. I can tell you this, I cherish my writer buddies who comment on my manuscripts and allow me the privilege of commenting on theirs. They help me to get a manuscript ready for submission. Then I put on my editor’s hat and attempt to see it with those eyes. But not until other writers have had at it first. :-)
Friday, June 19, 2009
Have you ever had a writer, who was commenting on your work, slip that into margins or onto the page?
I’m always slightly awestruck by the omniscient knowledge implicit in that comment. This person must actually know every acquisitions editor in every English language publishing house on earth. Not only do they know them, they know them intimately enough to know for a fact what they don’t like.
Editors (all editors since there is never a qualifier on that comment) don’t like adjectives or adverbs or explanatory dialogue tags or first person or present tense or back story or novels that open with description or passive verbs or dream sequences or single POV or multiple POV or omniscient POV or poetic language or plain language or lots of characters or too few characters or...
If it was as simple as all that, then why does this universal pool of like-minded acquisitions editors keep contracting fiction that contains all of the above?
How can that be?
Go to the library or the bookstore and pull ten recently published books of different genres off the shelf. Read through the opening page or two of each. I bet every “mistake” in the so-called writing lexicon of what “not to do” will be there.
I don’t know about you folks, but even if I wasn’t an editor myself, logic tells me that acquisitions editors like all kinds of stuff. In fact, it looks like they actually like things they don’t like. If you pick fifty or a hundred books to peruse, it looks like they maybe even like those things they “don’t like,” a lot.
Don’t fall for it when someone tells you you’ve broken a writing rule. If they can direct you to that one set of rules that all publishers and acquisitions editors keep open on their desks, then please share with the rest of us. But they can’t do that, because it doesn’t exist.
Write the novel or short story that you’d like to read. And you know what you like to read because it’s published and you buy these books. So someone else likes to read what you like to read as well, including an acquiring editor.
Forget the rules; write from the heart and the gut. If it feels good in that secret place all of us writers have where we read something we’ve just written and it makes us smile, then it will make someone else smile. That someone is likely the same someone who buys and reads the same kind of books that you buy and read—and the acquiring editor who snapped them up.
Try not to get caught up in the world of opinion on writing that proliferates on the internet and in how-to writing books. It’s all opinion and nothing more. Some of it may work for you and your manuscript, some of it won’t work at all. Just remember that if this set of absolute “rules” existed, it would be published somewhere. This magic book would be on the curriculum of every creative writing class in the English speaking world. Every aspiring writer would be directed to it as soon as they typed “creative writing” into Google, right?
There is no such set of rules and no credible list of what editors don’t like.
Give yourself the freedom to plaster the page with words. Colour outside the lines. Be messy.
I’ll have another post coming up on what it is that writers can give you that editors can’t, and vice versa. It will be entirely my opinion. :-) Like everything on this blog.
Tuesday, June 9, 2009
Take email, for example. I remember it being called electronic mail (open compound) before it morphed to e-mail (hyphenated compound). Now most dictionaries list it as email (closed compound).
Closed compounds evolve quickly in America. Open or hyphenated compounds are more common in the U.K. Canada straddles the fence, as usual, with a mixture of open, hyphenated, and closed compounds.
If a compound word is used frequently, it will show up in a dictionary. Don’t be surprised if dictionaries differ. They will. Pick the most current edition of your favourite dictionary (I recommend the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition, for the U.S.; the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, Second Edition, for Canada; and the Concise Oxford English Dictionary for the U.K.). The dictionary itself really doesn’t matter, as long as it is current, and you use the same one consistently.
So, one part of unravelling the mysteries of hyphenation is easy. Look up the compound word in the dictionary and use whatever combination you find there. Is it copy edit, copy-edit or copyedit? Your dictionary (the one you cherish above all other books in your library :-) ) will guide your way.
Of course, that doesn’t help with the pesky words we hyphenate to modify words. Let’s have a look at a couple of examples:
The well-known actor sat down at the table. The compound word “well-known” is hyphenated.
The actor sitting at the table is well known. What’s up with that? We just saw that “well-known” is hyphenated. Here’s where the complexity comes in. Compound words are usually not hyphenated when they follow the word they modify.
It gets worse.
The beautifully dressed woman looks very elegant. Why isn’t this compound hyphenated? Well, sometimes it is, and now you’re ready to pull your hair out. But a good rule of thumb is that if you are writing for the North American market, don’t hyphenate a compound word when the first word ends in “ly.” If you are writing for the U.K. market, go ahead and hyphenate compounds that contain “ly” words.
The very well known actor is sitting next to me. Now what? The compound word is in front of the word it is modifying (actor), so why isn’t it hyphenated? If a compound word is further qualified by another modifier (very), then there is no hyphen.
Hyphens can be tricky.
New car buyers will receive a substantial rebate. No hyphen. But does this mean that only first time car buyers (regardless of the age of the car) will get the rebate? Or does it mean that only buyers of new cars will get the rebate? If we play with the hyphens, the answers are clear.
New-car buyers will receive a substantial rebate. (No previously owned vehicles here.)
New car-buyers will receive a substantial rebate. (Yay! That second-hand rust bucket qualifies.)
I checked four dictionaries for “second hand” to see which ones used a hyphen: the Canadian Oxford (CANOX), the Nelson Canadian, Merriam Webster’s (MW) and the Concise Oxford. They all list second hand as an open compound as a noun (think the little hand on the clock). When used as an adjective, CANOX and the Concise Oxford hyphenate it (second-hand), and MW and Nelson both list it as a closed compound (secondhand). So don’t despair if you can’t decide if a hyphen is necessary or not. It’s not a precise science. :-)
Here’s a quick overview of some simplified guidelines (notice I didn’t say rules):
1. Check your dictionary first. You’ll be surprised how many compounds are in there. The choice is already made for you.
2. If you are in North America and writing for that market, don’t hyphenate a compound that contains a word ending in “ly.” If you are in the U.K. and writing for that market, go ahead and use a hyphen.
3. Hyphenate compound words that appear before the word they are modifying.
4. Don’t hyphenate compound words that appear after the word they are modifying.
5. Don’t hyphenate compound words that are further modified.
6. If in doubt, and the absence of a hyphen will have no impact on the meaning of the sentence, then don’t hyphenate. Too many hyphens can be distracting. The use of hyphens is so variable that a missing one is not likely to raise any eyebrows.
Friday, May 29, 2009
I was very surprised to see my own post from yesterday show up on the first page. There isn't a whole lot out there, but opinion reigns supreme.
So, before I get into what I think a discretionary comma is, I think I'll make a little opinion statement of my own on grammar and punctuation and the state of the information on it on the internet for writers of fiction.
Fasten your seatbelts.
I studied creative writing before I studied editing. One led to the other---long story, maybe I'll post it one day. I actively participate in writers' groups and online writers' groups as a writer. I also participate in editors' groups. The difference between the two is a chasm I'm struggling to see both sides of. (Non-rule, ending a sentence with a preposition.)
And I find writers don't fare so well in good will and accuracy when they advise other writers on questions of grammar and punctuation.
So, what has this got to do with the benign comma, the lowliest of punctuation marks (except the period which has no charisma at all)?
Sigh. Almost all of the advice you will find on grammar or punctuation on the Internet is geared to academic or non-fiction works. College and university sites, advice for essays, prescriptive dogma for journalists and students and the writers of how-to books and treatises on environmental issues or political strategies.
Fiction is different, folks. Different. And the writer can use discretion with punctuation. They can also use imagination. That doesn't mean that every whimsical comma placed or omitted by a writer will end up in print. But it does mean that acquisitions editors and quality copyeditors of fiction will respect a writer's unorthodox use of punctuation---if it works and the writing is stunning. And that's the key. It has to work. It can't just be a pretentious desire to be different. It has to work within and for the manuscript itself.
That said, here is my take on discretionary commas in fiction. I'll leave the fine points of non-fiction and academic writing up to those who know it best.
Commas are those small little curly things that group a sentence into related thoughts and whose job is to provide clarity. Without commas, some sentences don't make sense, or can mislead a reader into expecting a completion of a thought that veers into territory the writer didn't intend.
While we were eating my dog got out of the yard.
Eww...eating your dog?
The comma is definitely needed here.
While we were eating, my dog got out of the yard.
A discretionary comma is one that is correct, but perhaps not necessary.
On the way to church, she stopped for a coffee.
Sure, this is absolutely correct. Punctuation police satisfied. But is it entirely necessary? Is the meaning of the sentence going to be nebulous if you leave it out? It is a continuous scenario. She stopped on the way to church. There aren't two different things happening in space or time or the ethers. One is the continuation of the other, or conversely, the culmination of the other.
On the way to church she stopped for a coffee.
I don't know about you, but to me, the first sentence and the second sentence mean exactly the same thing with or without the comma. Is there a slight pause if you were reading it out loud? Maybe, but that's not what commas are for. They are there to make a sentence logical and meaningful. I don't see the comma having any impact on this sentence. And neither will your reader.
So that's my take on discretionary commas on a sentence like this. Every comma can be examined, judged and found worthy or not. :-) Most are necessary, some aren't.
My advice to writers of fiction is to concentrate on the writing. Ask, if punctuation doesn't seem to fit a sentence, or appears to be working against it, or if you're just plain stymied on what goes where. But the writing, the characters, the fiction, are the key.
Editors will forgive you just about anything if they can't stop reading.
Thursday, May 28, 2009
Some of the links are a bit academic (like the Language Log) but if you cruise around that one, you're going to find some really sharp and witty dialogue on grammar, usage, and probably a few surprises. Professor Pullum's rant about his copyeditor is very entertaining. It made the rounds of my copyediting email list.
I have a few more links to track down in my notes that are helpful for punctuation and grammar, with little quizzes for all the browners out there.
I'll post something on commas later tonight or tomorrow. Discretionary commas, to be exact.
Tuesday, May 26, 2009
So that's what I've been up to.
What have you folks been up to? Every sentence perfect in construction? Hah, likely not, mine never are. Nor do I care a whole lot when I'm writing. Get the good stuff on the page. Sweat the anal stuff later. That's my motto as a writer.
As an editor, gimme your good stuff. Let me make it shine. :-)
Friday, May 22, 2009
There a few ways to approach this one. I like two sentences myself, mostly because it is a wad of words to wade through as one sentence. (I also like alliteration, you might have noticed.)
Okay, North American style, two approaches...
Peter, while Paul had had "had had," had had "had." "Had had" had had a better response from the instructor.
Peter, while Paul had had "had had," had had "had;" "had had" had had a better response from the instructor.
Peter, while Paul had had "had had", had had "had". "Had had" had had a better response from the instructor.
Peter, while Paul had had "had had", had had "had"; "had had" had had a better response from the instructor.
Notice the punctuation inside the quotations for North America, outside for the UK.
Also note that double quotations are now used for words as words, not single quotes, which used to be the most common style. You still see single quotes from time to time, but when The Chicago Manual of Style switched to double quotes, the use of single quotes gradually diminished.
Anybody got a comma they'd like to boot? A semicolon looking for a home? Random, threatening ellipses?
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
This is a fairly well-known exercise, but if you haven't seen it, it can be mind boggling. :-)
Punctuate the following to make it grammatically correct.
Peter while Paul had had had had had had had had had had had a better response from the instructor.
Answer in a couple of days unless one of you gets it first. :-)
Saturday, May 16, 2009
Take the following examples of signs I've seen over the last couple of days and ponder if a company's image might be better served with the services of a copyeditor:
- Posted on the exit door of a store "Good Buy. Thanks for visiting. Come again." A pun? It was hand-lettered and sure didn't have the "feel" of a pun.
- Sign advertising legal services for traffic violations "Drunk driving, over 80?" They only defend drunk drivers older than 80? (I think it refers to blowing over 80 on a Breathalyzer...I think...or is it over 80 kilometers per hour? This is Canada, eh?)
- At the local plant nursery "Flower's and Veggie's"...bah...flower's and veggie's what? And yes, this one is so common it almost feels right when you read it. The bane of Lynne Truss in Eats, Shoots & Leaves. (Sentence fragment, I know.)
What's this got to do with fiction? I bet you're thinking I'm going to draw a parallel between the integrity of a commercial sign or advertisement and your manuscript. I bet you're thinking that using "its" when it should "it's" is a mortal sin and your credibility as a writer will be shot just like the guy who only represents octogenarian drinkers. Wanna bet you're wrong?
This has nothing to do with punctuating fiction or memoir. But it's fun. For me.
Thursday, May 14, 2009
I've been writing for a long time, I rarely submit (too picky, I think, with my own stuff) but I've been editing part-time for about six years. I find myself spending more and more time on editing and less and less time on writing. I have post-grad credentials in both fields and I specialized in fiction editing in my editorial studies.
I interact with an international pool of writers and one of the most common themes (note the literary reference) I find in the vast pool of self-flagellating paranoia where writers swim is the fear of making a grammatical or punctuation error. That is only topped by the whipping winds of "not knowing when they've made a grammatical or punctation error" which will, of course, negate any possibility of getting a publishing contract. Not.
The only true grammarians I know (note the qualifier, I don't know everybody in the world, thank God) are copyeditors. And copyeditors wouldn't have jobs if writers knew where every comma should be placed, how to make a sentence parallel or if the subjunctive is the correct case in a particular sentence or not. In other words, relax. The last thing thing an acquisitions editor is worried about is your punctuation skills. Incorrect spelling might be an issue. It means you're lazy. Punctuation is a fluid thing and subject to style guides and sun spots, as well as trends and nationalities.
I'm conversant in Canadian, American and UK styles for grammar and punctuation. I'm Canadian, I had to learn all three since we mix them up liberally and label them all "Canadian" when it's convenient or just feels good.
Ask away. Gimme your tough sentences, bristling semicolons, stuttering commas, looping ellipsis, dangling participles, your fragments, splices and run-ons. I love them all. :-)
Fair warning though, you might be surprised how out of touch your English prof was and is. :-)
The advice I give here will be current and to the very best of my knowledge (or the knowledge of my colleagues) correct, as of the day it is written. Tomorrow, who knows. If you think you catch me in mistake, by all means, let me know. I'm not infallible, nor perfect (well, let me think about that...okay...not perfect). I don't edit my own posts much or well. Make it a game to find my mistakes on my blog posts. It'll keep me on my toes and help me to edit my own fiction. Thanks in advance. :-)
Hit me with your best shot.
PS. You might find the occasional rant here on the subject of writers beating up other writers over nothing, passive voice and what it really is and who cares about it, plot versus story, dialogue tags and beats and how to get over yourself on them...stuff...might happen.