Monday, October 23, 2017

The ABCs of Book Writing: P is for PUNCTUATION . . .

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. . . a few POINTERS.

Most writers know what to do with the period, question mark, and exclamation point—the punctuation that typically signals sentence endings. The most prevalent internal sentence punctuation, the comma, is not as well understood. In my work as an editor, I notice widespread misuse or absence of commas, as well as uncertainty about how and when to deploy less familiar punctuation marks such as the semicolon and em dash.

Increasing their punctuation know-how is an effective, but often overlooked, way for writers to enhance the ease and impact of their writing. What follows is not an exhaustive course in punctuation, but a few quick pointers about the uses and versatility of common punctuation marks in English-language writing.

End-of-sentence punctuation: period, exclamation point, question mark


Insert—

—a period to conclude a statement:

Nothing could be more simple.

—a question mark to end with an inquiry or, occasionally, a note of irony or disbelief:

What time did you arrive? What did you do next?

You did what?

—an exclamation point to end with an emphatic flourish:

I could not believe my eyes!

Note: Be sparing with exclamation points. Using too many of them depletes their emphatic power: It's true! I mean it! Really!

Other end-of-sentence punctuation


Use—

—an em dash for speech or thought interrupted:

"But you said you would—"
"I changed my mind," she snapped, disliking his accusatory tone.

ellipsis points to indicate ongoing action or voice trailing off in dialogue:

The ships sailed in and out of the harbor. . . .

"But I was so sure it would all work out. . . ." He had to lean in close to hear the last part of what she said.

Internal sentence punctuation: the comma


Insert a comma

—to signal a pause:

When he was a boy, his family home did not have electricity.
Possibly, the whole plan was a mistake.
At certain times, there is no need to apologize.

Note: In examples like the three above, the comma is often optional, according to the writer's ear and need for emphasis. If in doubt, retain the comma to ensure clarity. In many instances, using an optional comma will add a subtle note of emphasis to the statement. Compare the second and third examples above to these:

Possibly the whole plan was a mistake.
At certain times there is no need to apologize.

Also use a comma

—to offset added descriptive or explanatory content:

The salesman, whose smile looked pasted onto his face, approached with a determined step.

—to list items in a series:

She was warmly dressed in a coat, hat, scarf, and pair of fleece-lined boots.

Note: The final comma in the series is optional, but most stylists recommend its inclusion.

—to separate the main parts of compound and/or complex sentences:

Simple sentence, no comma: Mary walked away.
Compound: Mary turned her back on him, and then she walked away.
Complex: Because she had nothing more to say to him, Mary walked away.
Complex/compound: Because she had nothing more to say, Mary turned her back on him, and then she walked away.

Other internal sentence punctuation


Use—

—a semicolon when ideas are closely connected, and making two sentences would create choppiness:

One cat was white; the other was orange. (Instead of: One cat was white. The other was orange.)

Note: As a rule, in this kind of construction, avoid inserting a comma and creating a run-on sentence (a.k.a. comma fault or comma splice)—as in: One cat was white, the other was orange. For further discussion of the run-on sentence and its fixes, see "E is for EMAIL".

In other kinds of sentences, insert—

—a colon to introduce a list, or to augment or complete preceding information:

The clock ticked . . .
Example of ellipsis points used for deliberate effect
The room contained four items of furniture: a bed, nightstand, floor lamp, and rocking chair.

Jane looked at her watch and saw that she had two choices: she could grab a bite now or go hungry until dinnertime.

ellipsis points to indicate omissions from quoted material, or to suggest ongoing action and/or time passing:

"When a species . . . increases inordinately . . . , epidemics . . . often ensue."

The clock ticked . . . ticked . . .
ticked . . . and finally struck midnight.

—two em dashes to offset parenthetical information, or to emphasize added content:

French impressionists—for example, Monet and Degas—brought a new vision to painting.

My best option—or so I thought at the time—was to keep my mouth shut.

Note: The first sentence in the above pair might also use parentheses: French impressionists (for example, Monet and Degas) brought a new vision to painting. Many contemporary stylists favor em dashes over parentheses because the former are more elegant or emphatic in many sentence constructions.

In the second sentence, replacing the em dashes with commas would be acceptable, but the use of em dashes creates greater emphasis and/or drama.

And speaking of enhanced effect, instead of a comma try using—

—a single em dash to add drama to a sentence:

He suddenly got an idea—a brilliant idea that would solve all his problems.

Note: An em dash can be typed as two hyphens (--), but do not use single hyphens in place of em dashes or any other sentence punctuation. Hyphens are for use in compound words and to attach some prefixes and suffixes: kilowatt-hour, mass-produced, co-op, anti-inflammatory, university-wide—to cite just a few well-chosen, high-quality examples of hyphenated words.


Learning more about punctuation


The pointers and examples given above are introductory and do not include all forms of punctuation or every usage for the punctuation discussed. For more information about punctuation marks and specialized usages, consult chapter 6 of The Chicago Manual of Style, available in the reference sections of most public libraries. For online information, start at
http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/.

It can take years of writing, editing, and consulting style manuals to become a punctuation expert. But mastering the basics and following punctuation best practice, even at an elementary level, will help ensure clarity and empower your writing.

Up next . . . "Q is for QUERY"

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The ABCs of Book Writing: O is for OW . . .

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. . . OVERWRITING, that is.


When I edit a book manuscript, I use sidebar comments to explain the reason for many of the changes that I make. Some of these comments include abbreviations to designate frequently recurring issues. My favorite abbreviation of this sort is OW. Not only does it stand for overwriting, but it also expresses a common reader reaction to bloated language. In The Elements of Style, Strunk and White parody the painful effect of "overblown" writing: "Rich, ornate prose is hard to digest, generally unwholesome, and sometimes nauseating."

What is overwriting?


Generally speaking, to overwrite is to write in a contrived, elaborate, and wordy style. Overwritten prose may include any or all of the following lapses, occurring separately or in combination:

—unnecessary adverbs

—excessive and/or redundant adjectives

—obscure and/or overly elevated language

—indiscriminate use of qualifiers (little, very, rather, pretty)

—unnecessarily long sentences

—mixed metaphors and similes: comparisons using dubious logic and contradictory or incompatible imagery

Examples of how to reduce overwriting 


In each example below, the reduced version is a representative way to correct the overwritten passage. Other possibilities for reduction are numerous, and rewrites will vary according to the individual writer's style and objectives.


 Adverbs


Overwritten: "I hate studying," she said angrily and shut the textbook loudly.

Reduced: "I hate studying," she said and slammed the textbook shut.


 Adjectives


Overwritten: A great, huge, overgrown red setter lumbered toward us.

Reduced: An overgrown red setter lumbered toward us.

Overwritten: Weary, and with slow, leaden steps, he plodded onward, dragging himself along the long, endless path.

Reduced: Weary, he plodded along the endless path.

Language


Overwritten: She was in no small way gratified that both her visual acuity and auditory capability were of a functionality vastly superior to that of the pedestrian throng that constituted virtually all the rest of humanity.

Reduced: She was proud that her eyesight and hearing were far above average.

Qualifiers


Overwritten:
"The constant use of the adjective little (except to indicate size) is particularly debilitating; we should all try to do a little better, we should all be very watchful of this rule, for it is a rather important one, and we are pretty sure to violate it now and then." (From Strunk and White; boldface added.) 

Reduced: "The constant use of the adjective little (except to indicate size) is particularly debilitating; we should all try to do . . . better, we should all be . . . watchful of this rule, for it is an . . . important one, and we are . . . sure to violate it now and then."
 

Long sentences

 

Overwritten: While she couldn't help feeling uneasy, she made an effort to ignore the prickling at the back of her neck, because it could just be heat rash, she told herself in an attempt to stay calm, but she really didn't believe this, as her heart rate was accelerating.

Reduced:  She made an effort to ignore the uneasiness prickling at the back of her neck. It could just be heat rash, she told herself, but her accelerating heart rate said otherwise.

Mixed metaphors and similes


Overwritten: Bracing himself like a boxer about to enter the ring, he took a deep breath and then plunged into the poisonously freezing river, which flowed with the ferocity of molten lava from a newly erupted volcano.

Reduced: He took a deep breath and plunged into the freezing river.

Note: The comparisons in the first sentence are dysfunctional, mixing logically unrelated, and thus incompatible, imagery of sport (boxing), toxicity (poisonously), and a natural phenomenon (freezing); the sentence then contradicts the image of freezing cold water by introducing an image of heat (molten lava).

Example of overwriting & editorial reduction

Keep it simple


Avoid overwriting by practicing the necessary restraint to streamline your prose. Without entirely compromising your personal style and vision, lean toward a minimalist approach to writing:

—Reduce or eliminate adverbs; use strong verbs instead.

—Resist introducing extraneous adjectives.

—Use language judiciously, with an eye to transparency.

—Avoid qualifiers; use only those that add to meaning or effect.

—Vary sentence lengths; divide overly long sentences into digestible portions.

—Scrutinize your metaphors for logic, consistency, and appropriateness; when in doubt, opt for a straightforward action statement.

In all matters of style, aim for brevity, directness, and clarity. As Strunk and White advise, "guard against wordiness," self-edit early drafts, and "delete the excess." Less is usually more.

Up next . . . "P is for PUNCTUATION"

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The ABCs of Book Writing: N is for NEW . . .

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. . . and, er, NOTHING NEW.

Back in the day when I was a full-time book author, my New York agent enjoyed regaling me with her book-trade "street smarts." Among her favorite and most often repeated aphorisms was this one: There's nothing new under the sun. At the time I regarded this notion with a good deal of skepticism. Personally, I was full of bright ideas that I was pretty sure were brand-new. Certainly I had thought them up on my own without knowingly copying anyone else. But as my years in the book trade mounted, and came to include editing and consulting as well as writing, I began to see what my agent had meant.

What's "new" in nonfiction


In expository nonfiction, a bright idea newly conceived might shed fresh light on related ideas that came before. This can certainly be original and creative but not necessarily brand-new. Forms of creative nonfiction—memoir, biography, popular history, and other kinds of true narrative—have a long history and relative uniformity of structure. Such works are typically organized chronologically, thematically, or by a combination of chronology and theme. Any newness comes from the author's distinctive style and possibly subject matter that is little known or explored from a fresh perspective.

What's "new" in fiction


In fiction, three main kinds of conflict—separately or in combination—drive all stories:

1. Character vs. self (as in, for example, identity confusion, obsession, self-deception, and destructive goals or behaviors)

2. Character vs. character(s) (as evidenced in, for example, jealousy, betrayals, and rivalries of all kinds from office politics to threats of bodily harm to fights to the death)

3. Character vs. major force(s) (for example nature, technology, or apocalypse)

Given that conflict must be present in any functional story, and that there are only three basic kinds of conflict in fiction, it stands to reason that entirely original plots are accordingly limited. Writers, critics, and scholars of literature have long argued about exactly how many distinct plots constitute the entire history of fiction. Widely defended numbers are three, six, seven, twenty, and thirty-six. For more information see, among many other such discussions, the Guardian article ". . . how many basic plots are there in all stories ever written?"

A plausible case can be made for any of the commonly proposed numbers of plots. What this boils down to is that the much-hailed "stunningly original" blockbuster and "creative tour de force" are not completely new but, rather, offer new twists on old plots.

The creative challenge of nothing new


Way back in history, when the literary world was young, entirely new ideas must have been more readily conceivable than they are in our time. If indeed my agent was right, and there is now little or nothing that is truly, totally new, then writers must contend with a notable irony: in this age of sound bites, short attention spans, and constant information flow, a taste for the new is arguably more widely prevalent and insatiable than ever before.

Daisy, the Helping You Get Published mascot

Today's creative challenge is constantly to reinvent what was once brand new, and which must appear to be new all over again. Strategies for recreating the new include the following:

—developing fresh perspectives
—cultivating stylistic distinctiveness
—discovering underexplored subject matter
—concocting new plot twists
—devising compelling hooks

As literary history continues to unfold, new rarely, if at all, means brand-new. The imperative now is ongoing reinvention in writing, and innovation in the marketing of books.

Up next . . . "O is for OW . . . OVERWRITING, that is"

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The ABCs of Book Writing: INTERMISSION

Blog series intermission till July
The series "The ABCs of Book Writing" is half done, with A to M completed last week. The series will resume in July as "Book Writing ABCs, with "N is for NEW." During this intermission period, go to https://www.facebook.com/HelpingYouGetPublished.FreelanceEditing/ for announcements and other posts on book writing and publishing.

For an overview of infographics and other visuals illustrating book writing from A to M, go to:
https://www.pinterest.com/helpingyougetpublished/the-abcs-of-book-writing-a-m/

Pinterest Overview of A to M

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The ABCs of Book Writing: M is for MOMENTUM . . .

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. . . and MOVING the story forward.


Every book needs sustained forward momentum. Like a radio or TV show that suddenly has dead air, a book in which momentum halts sends a clear signal: something is wrong.

Momentum in fiction and creative nonfiction


To hold the reader’s interest, all novels must create and maintain a sense of the plot going forward. In a thriller, this momentum is typically very fast. In other kinds of novels the pace may be slower, more like real life. But the forward momentum must be there nonetheless, or the reader feels no need to read on. Creative nonfiction must similarly establish and maintain momentum in order to attract and keep the reader's attention.

Sustaining momentum in fiction and creative nonfiction


For novels, novellas, and stories:

—Cultivate conflict and problems. Stories are propelled by the conflicts and problems that characters encounter and resolve. Remove all conflict and you have no plot; fail to sustain conflict and you get a plot that stops and starts. Instead, constantly thrust the character into scenes where the character must confront conflicts, take action, and solve problems—thus changing, growing, furthering the plot, and always moving the story forward.

—Keep explanatory description of settings, people's physical appearance, and emotions to a necessary minimum. Never lecture. Show, don't tell.

—Avoid long flashbacks. Integrate flashback information bit by bit into the main action of the story.

—Avoid detailed backstory. As with flashbacks, integrate the necessary background information into the main action.

For memoirs, biographies, popular histories, and true crime:

Use any or all of the strategies noted above to ensure that your readers stay engaged. Creative nonfiction typically employs many, if not all, of the narrative techniques of fiction. What I have said with respect to fiction writing therefore applies to your work of creative nonfiction. While you may be able to take greater liberties with description, flashbacks, and backstory than you would with fiction writing, the need to sustain forward momentum always remains.

Momentum in expository nonfiction


Expository nonfiction does not have a story in the same way as fiction or creative nonfiction. But books specifically designed to explain and instruct must still convey to the reader a sense of forward thrust, of constantly moving toward any or all of the following:

-conclusion of an argument
-solution to a problem
-benefit for the reader
-specific action the reader can take
-fresh insight
-new skill or knowledge

If the nonfiction book appears to lack such momentum and direction, readers will disengage in the same way that they would from a novel that grinds to a halt.

Sustaining momentum in expository nonfiction


For how-to, self-help, and motivational books; textbooks; and academic and technical works:

Remember the reader
Making a habit of putting reader understanding before a
display of your own knowledge will automatically help
sustain forward momentum.
—Stay focused on the book's ultimate objective. Avoid digressing.

—Be concise. Avoid lecturing.

—Be clear. Don't obfuscate by writing in circles around the subject.

—Remember the reader. Always prioritize reader understanding over showing off your own expertise or erudition.


Keep moving, keep readers


Forward momentum equals reader engagement
Daisy, the Helping You Get Published mascot, demonstrates
forward momentum and reader engagement.
All readers know the power of those books that compel us to keep turning the pages to find out what comes next. Momentum is the source of this power. Without sustained momentum, you not only lose writing power but you lose readers. Forward momentum is at the heart of reader engagement. Successful writing is that simple—and that challenging.



INTERMISSION: The ABCs of Book Writing will resume in October
with “N is for NEW.” Announcements at: https://www.facebook.com/HelpingYouGetPublished.FreelanceEditing/

Saturday, June 3, 2017

The ABCs of Book Writing: L is for LECTURING . . .

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. . . and avoiding it—a LITTLE goes a LONG way.

What do you mean by lecturing when writing a book?

By lecturing, I mean dumping large quantities of dry facts or long-winded background information into your fiction or nonfiction with little regard for engaging the reader. The adverse effects of lecturing include:

- detracting from the interest of the main points or argument in nonfiction;
- halting the forward action of fiction; and, in all cases,
- boring or confusing the reader.

Is lecturing in a book ever OK?

Certainly—if you're a professor writing a guide called something like 25 Winning Lectures, then lecturing is not only OK, but a positive must. For most other kinds of books, instead of lapsing into lecture mode, try to find briefer and more readable ways to convey information.

Avoiding lecturing in nonfiction writing


In the writing of both creative and expository nonfiction, there are times when explanations or background information are necessary in order for the reader to understand what is going on. It is up to you as the author to ensure that your readers are suitably oriented and informed. But lecturing is by no means the only or most engaging way to do your job.

Tips for conveying information in nonfiction

 
—Be concise.

—Moderate your tone; don't harangue.

—Focus on the main points; don't digress.

—Don't quote at length from other books. This is boring and may violate fair use guidelines.

—Convey information through anecdotes, colorful examples, vignettes, or even recalled or imagined conversation.

—Keep paragraphs short: five or six sentences on average, interspersed with one- or two-sentence paragraphs for variety and emphasis.

—Where appropriate, introduce numbered or bulleted points.

—Use subheadings to break up lengthy topics into readable sections.

 Avoiding lecturing in fiction writing


Effective fiction is all about story and character. A novel or shorter fiction should never be a platform for the author to show off his or her erudition, voice opinions, or dish out copious amounts of explanations and background—however relevant such information might seem. Similarly, do not let your characters lecture either—whether they're expressing your views or their own.

Tips for writing fiction without lecturing the reader


—Do not overuse the omniscient author point of view—in other words, do not intrude yourself into the story. Develop strong character viewpoints and stay with them.

—Write character dialogue, not monologue.

—Keep all dialogue speech brief; do not let characters ramble on for two or more paragraphs.

—If conveying a lot of information through dialogue is necessary, then break up each speech into short, digestible chunks. Use "beats"—gestures, facial expressions, or short passages of action—to make the dialogue seem natural and to keep the story going forward.

—Resist the urge to explain. Let necessary information come out bit by bit as the story moves forward; reveal what the reader needs to know through the characters' actions and understanding.

The need to explain in fiction and nonfiction


Shakespeare on conciseness in writing
Shakespeare was to the point on brevity: watch
the video below . . .

There is a difference between the need to explain and the urge. More often than not, you may feel the latter, because explaining is less creatively taxing than devising more engaging ways to get your point across. In certain instances, however, a no-frills explanation may be the only option. This is the need to explain.

In both fiction and nonfiction, the need to explain something does not call for a full-blown lecture. Use your own feelings as a barometer. If you're boring yourself as you write, then the odds are that you're lecturing—and boring the reader too. Explain what and when you must, but never fail to practice lecture avoidance:

Be clear about the point you need to make. Get straight to it. Be brief.


Coming next week . . . "M is for MOMENTUM"