Today’s Writing Tip

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I’m amazed by how many authors don’t know how to punctuate dialog properly.  I’ve seen periods instead of commas for statements, missing question marks, overuse of explanation points, lack of semi-colons, and multiple speakers in a single paragraph. Knowing these rules is an author’s responsibility. While not all readers will notice if you honk it up, experienced authors will. I remember learning this no later than high school, probably earlier. However, I’ve always been a writer at heart; that may be why that information stuck. Others, if they came to writing later in life, may have never paid attention and simply haven’t noticed it in reading.

Besides punctuation, which really ought to be obvious, the one mistake I see a lot is when one of the characters is on a long-winded speech or monologue. Visually, it’s good to break these into more than one, huge, eye-bogging paragraph. Great. So, if that’s the case. do it correctly.

The way you do that is to start it as you do all dialog with a quotation mark. However, if it goes on to a new paragraph, don’t use a close quote on the first paragraph. This tells the reader there is more to come from the same speaker. The new paragraph will start with a quotation mark, telling the reader it’s still someone speaking and not to be confused with prose.

It’s amazing how many authors don’t know this. Apparently, some editors don’t, either.

Today’s Writing Tip

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Don’t over-use exclamation points! Save them for where they’re really needed! They should only be used for emphasis! Using too many gets annoying and reduces their impact!

This applies even if it’s a very intense chase or fight scene! It may work in comic books or even some graphic novels, but not in most stories! They work well to show surprise or an unexpected event, but lose their impact if there are too many! The story action should tell the reader if something is exciting and sustain the suspense, not the punctuation alone!

Capisce?

Today’s Writing Tip

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When someone asks a question, be sure to punctuate with a “?” However, this can vary with narration. “He wondered whether the police had all the evidence” is a statement but “Did the police have all the evidence?” is a question.

Today’s Writing Tip

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Learn to use commas correctly. Comma usage is too complicated to explain here, but be aware that they not only affect readability, but reflect your skill as a writer. Read your work out loud, if necessary, to help you figure out where they’re needed.  Their primary purpose is to separate sentence elements with a slight pause to provide clarity. Hint: You’ll often need one before “but” or “which”. Oxford commas, where you include a comma before the “and” in a series of items, is often used as well. For example, “Her favorite foods included pizza, spaghetti, chocolate, enchiladas, and fajitas.” Without the Oxford comma, “enchiladas and fajitas” could be considered to be a reference to a combination plate as opposed to separate items.

Comma, give me a break!

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I think we all realize that whether or not a person likes a book is highly subjective. I’ve read (or tried to read) books with numerous five-star reviews that I didn’t like and couldn’t get through. Some were well-written, just boring or populated with unappealing characters, while others were poorly written and/or edited. I’m a bit of a grammar/typo Nazi myself so I hide my head in shame that someone put one of my books in that category.

I’ve heard that no literary agent or publisher takes an indie book seriously until it has a few three-star reviews. Thus, when I got my first one as an untimely present for my Christmas birthday, I had mixed feelings. I now had the obligatory mediocre review and, to be perfectly honest, the reason had been noted by a previous reviewer, i.e. the lack of commas. I acknowledge this as a valid complaint and have it on my to-do list to rectify. Sadly, at one point I’d actually taken several of them out because they seemed to slow the story down! How ironic is that?

Okay, you may have already guessed that I have a couple confessions to make. First of all, I edited my own books, which I realize is a major no-no, but let me explain. First of all, there were various times when this particular book, which was admittedly my first novel, was set aside for years. When I would get back to it, I could read it like it wasn’t my own and, for the most part, edit effectively. Like I said, I’ve been accused of being a grammar Nazi with other people’s work, and I definitely fixed a lot over time.

Another factor was finding an editor I could trust to do the job. I mean, really do the job. I’ve seen too many acknowledgements in various novels where authors extol and thank their editor while I, nonetheless, find a plethora of things they missed when I read the work in question. Call it pride, if you must, but it was hard not to feel I could do as good or better of a job than some of the supposed pros out there.

And the coup de grace was that I was on a budget. While I don’t mind paying for services that are done correctly, cost combined with not being sure I could find a competent editor resulted in doing it myself. Oh, well, my bad.

The second one is that, even though I have a minor in English, I am not that well-versed in grammar. Seriously. Most of what I know has been learned through my mother correcting me as a child, reading, and, heaven forbid, intuition. I’ve been an avid reader all my life and been writing since I could hold a pencil, yet never liked English classes or understood some of the rules. Diagramming sentences to me was worse than algebra, which made more sense. I really don’t like to point fingers, but in this case I’m going to point one at a prof I had in college who taught the obligatory grammar class for those majoring or minoring in English. That class was, like we say here in Texas, as useless as teats on a boar hog.

The prof, who is probably now dead and gone, couldn’t find a textbook that he liked so we had none. He would lecture, but with no logical order or continuity that I could recognize. All we did the entire term was–you guessed it–diagram sentences. Punctuation was rarely mentioned. One thing I remember him (or perhaps someone else) saying was that English, unlike Latin, was a living language that evolved, that such things as punctuation styles changed over time, and things like comma usage was becoming somewhat optional. You can bet I jumped on that like a duck on a June bug!

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But for purists who were more astute at learning the rules than I was, it was a major faux pas. And apparently the person who left this three-star lambasting was one of them.  I must say that the reviewer was generous in giving it three-stars since s/he didn’t even finish reading it.

Back to the subjectivity of what we like, science fiction is certainly one of those genres that everyone doesn’t care for. (Oops, ended that sentence with a preposition! OMG! Let’s correct that to “one of those genres for which everyone does not care.” Right? Right.) Even with proper punctuation it’s likely s/he wouldn’t have liked it. That I understand. And I do admit s/he has a point and I will fix the problem because, believe it or not, I really am a bit of a perfectionist, but that doesn’t mean that I know everything by a long shot. I’m teachable but, as noted earlier, I never had a decent English teacher or at least one I could follow. Math is much simpler to me with its concrete, easy to follow rules and black and white answers. Equations make a lot more sense.

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So what have I learned that I can pass on to other writers? If I had this to do over, it would be to do a beta reader exchange with someone who has equal editing skills to my own. Fortunately, for subsequent books I was able to find such individuals. And that is what saddens me the most, the other books in the series are in much better shape. I’ve actually received compliments on the editing of at least one of the others. This was my first book and I’ve heard it said that everyone’s first novel should go in the trash bin labeled “tuition.” My problem was that it was the start of a series with so much more to tell! The characters evolved and so did the plot to the point that it took four full-length novels to complete the story. I’m a much better writer now, as all of us become, the more we write.

So, bottom line, I’ll go back eventually and correct the comma situation. I don’t know all the rules, but at this point I’m reasonably confident that I’ll be able to do so in a competent manner. The worst part, as most indie authors know, is that there are so many different formats to deal with, i.e., both print and electronic versions, which complicates the process considerably. Nonetheless, I’ll have the satisfaction of debunking that uncomplimentary review when it’s corrected, unless, of course, those who would appreciate a properly copy edited work are turned off by that seething diatribe, which is actually so excessive that it’s downright amusing. Fortunately, most geeks and nerds, who are my primary audience, anyway, aren’t quite so concerned, though there are exceptions, of course, many of whom I met at NASA.

<Sigh.>

Rant over.

Thanks for listening.

P.S. If you’d like an ecopy of the book in question, “Beyond the Hidden Sky,” for free, join my mailing list, which qualifies you for a free download. You can do so here.