You’ve probably already figured out that many of these tips derive from my finding just such an error in something I read. This is another example.
Occasionally you’re likely to have a character who speaks a different language. When using a foreign language that you do not speak, be cautious when using translation software because it often doesn’t reflect the correct syntax. If possible, find a native speaker to confirm whether or not it’s correct.
This is another situation where it may slip right past most readers. However, if they have any knowledge of the language, whether it be French or Klingon, it’s advisable to make sure it’s properly represented. If your character is trying to speak a language of which they are not a native, then you could get away with this, but not if they should know the proper way to say it.
Today’s tip goes very much along with yesterday’s, but is a bit more specific. If you’re writing a crime novel or one that involves police procedure in some way, make sure you use the correct terminology and processes. This is not always as easy as it may seem, just from watching television shows.
Different police departments are likely to have slightly different procedures at the detail level, which gives some degree of latitude. The basics, however, should ring true.
Not to be a nag, but as an author it’s your business to know what you’re talking about. Along similar lines, I remember reading a novel some time ago which involved a character in the military telling a subordinate to “Relax.” Really? Don’t you think that he’d probably say, “At ease, soldier?”
One thing that’s important if a novel is going to sound convincing is for the occupations of the character(s) to sound authentic. I remember beta reading a story many years ago where the main character worked as a computer programmer, yet everything about it was inaccurate. I have done some programming before and immediately recognized that the author didn’t have a clue what she was talking about. That definitely did not make the book credible much less impress me with the author’s dedication to accuracy.
Okay, I’m a bit of a break about those things, but it makes a big difference. Assuming your reader won’t know the difference is a BIG MISTAKE. Some of us do, and it will result in a abysmal review and someone who will probably never read another thing you write.
Now that I have my rant out of the way, the point of today’s tip is that every occupation has its own jargon. Use enough in character dialog to sound authentic, but don’t boggle the reader’s mind with too many acronyms. That, of course, is going too far the other way. A few are okay, but even then the reader may appreciate it if you remind them from time to time what they stand for.
This is something I’ve mentioned before, but it can make the difference between a professionally formatted work and one that screams, “Amateur!” Have you ever noticed that formatting for fiction is different than nonfiction? Fiction typically has indented paragraphs, nonfiction has block paragraphs. If you don’t believe me, go into a bookstore (or your own bookshelf) some time to see for yourself.
I don’t know why this convention evolved but I’m sure there’s a reason. I suspect that perhaps block paragraphs make it easier for the reader to grasp nonfiction concepts in small bites whereas a novel should flow more easily.
I remember the first time I sat down to format a book I realized I’d never paid much attention to such things. When you become an Indie Author it becomes your business to know. Other details, such as headers, footers, pagination, chapter headings, and so forth are more negotiable.
The next time you read, pay attention to the formatting. It can provide various do’s and don’t’s for your own.
Editing your own work is always a challenge. It’s easy to read over typos because your brain tends to see what it expects. You also have your own writing style, which of course will seem natural to you, even if it has something fundamentally unclear that a reader will trip over.
One way to help overcome these obstacles is to read your story aloud. You can tell more easily if the flow of the words is natural, often discovering a better way to arrange them. If nothing else, read the dialog out loud, which helps determine whether or not it sounds authentic.
Watch for proper subject-verb agreement. This may seem obvious, but beyond the basics, such as “Writing skill IS important” vs. “Writing skill and grammar ARE important”, it isn’t always so clear.
This is often the case if there’s a prepositional phrase somewhere between the subject and verb. It’s really easy, and I’ve done this a lot myself, to take the subject of the prepositional phrase as the subject for the verb. I’ve even seen such things slip past editors from time to time. For example, “The mother of the kittens IS grey and white”. To get rid of the troublesome prepositional phrase you could say “The kittens’s mother is grey and white.”
I think everyone hated diagramming sentences, but this is a good example where having those skills helps. Too many people think because they can talk that they can write. Thus, they “may be talking as they be speaking”. Correct grammar is important if you want to build a solid reputation as a professional writer.
Every now and then a short story contest comes along that has a tight deadline. Thus, if you don’t already have an idea in mind, you’re stuck. There’s one formula to come up with a story that is fun and can help you put something together quickly. It’s as easy as filling in the blanks.
This involves using the classic “What if?” premise: What if a ____ and a ____ went to _____ and ______.
The wackier your answers, the better and more original it will be. For practice, fill in the blanks based on your favorite sit-com or movie. You can sometimes get an idea rolling with no more than the “What if” portion. For example, the old sit-com ALF was based on “What if a space alien crashed into someone’s house and couldn’t leave because his ship was damaged?”
If a paragraph is too long, it’s hard on the reader’s eyes. Break them up for visual appeal, even if in a technical sense it’s only one thought. I don’t know about you, but when I come to a paragraph that takes up an entire page, there’s something daunting about it. Sometimes they’re even hard to read, depending on the font size and spacing.
There are so many ways to distract a reader it’s pathetic. Long, run-on paragraphs are one of them. Even if it’s the same thought, be sure to break it up if it takes up half or more of the page. If it happens to be dialog, you may want to break it up with some action. Otherwise, remember that when the same speaker continues to the next paragraph, you don’t use a close quote on the previous one.
Paragraphs should contain connected thoughts and have an introductory and closing sentence. Of course, this is not always easy to do when writing a novel, but essential for nonfiction. However, they should have some degree of coherence. If the subject or thought line changes, then start a new paragraph. More on this tomorrow when I’ll talk about paragraph length.
Using correct punctuation in dialog is essential, yet it is one thing I see done incorrectly as much as anything. For example, when someone asks a question, be sure to punctuate with a “?” I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve seen dialog that was clearly a question, yet didn’t employ a question mark.
Admittedly, there are times when this is not 100% clear. “He wondered whether the police had all the evidence” is a statement, but “Did the police have all the evidence?” is a question. One way to figure it out, if you’re in doubt, is to say it out loud.