Writer to Writer - May 25th, 2005
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'Show, Don't Tell' Mastercourse
From the Editors Desk
In the first of a short series of articles dealing with the nuts and bolts of writinggrammar and punctuationauthor and freelance editor Andrew John asks why writers should please their intended publishers by aiming for consistency.
Putting On the Style
© Andrew John All Rights Reserved
Why style preferences? Why consistency? Why do in-house editors send out a huge wad of paper to would-be authors and freelance copy editors containing editorial preferences, rules, niggles? Is it not the quality of the writing that counts?
Well, the answer to the last question is a resounding yes. Quality does count. It counts for a lot. But the people who may decide whether or not to accept your proposal will learn an awful lot about you from the style choices in your writing and your attention to detail. If its sloppy, they may say, is this writer going to cause us a lot of hassle? Will there have to be numerous revisions before we get a manuscript we can send out to a copy editor? And will that freelance copy editor take twice as long as usual, thereby doubling the fee we have to pay?
So that wad of paper will usually contain an alphabetical list of examples of The Way We Like Things To Be Done. Its usually called a publishers style guide (or something similar).
Publishers have what they call a house style. So do many newspapers. There is no reason why a company that produces a lot of text-heavy documents such as reports and training materials should not do the same. So this applies to all kinds of writing, and therefore applies to you.
Casting the spell
What sorts of things are we talking about? Well, the English language can be infuriating at times, and, just to confuse us, tends to give us various spellings and treatments of words.
Ideally, your writing should reflect consistencywhichever variant of a word you choose to use. Lets take a look at just a few examples.
Where there are variants of spelling (such as collectable and collectible, drily and dryly, downmarket and down-market, coordinate and co-ordinate), which does your potential publisher prefer? It will be in the style guide. Take a look.
Do your publishers use double quotation marks ("like this") for your primary quotations, with single quotation marks (like this) for quotations within quotations (favored by the USA in both books and newspapers and by many British newspapers)? Or do they prefer to have them the other way around, using doubles within singles (favored by British book publishers, many British magazines and some British newspapers)?
Contrary to what you may see in manymostly tabloid and in regional or localnewspapers, they should not be mixed willy-nilly: the distinction between doubles and singles is a useful one to preserve, because it tells your reader whether this is the main quote or a secondary quote within.
Book editors are generally more careful than editors on newspapers, and so your book manuscriptif that is what youre planningwill pass through a pair of dedicated hands. All this quotes business will be taken care of. But you can make that copy-editors job easierand cost the publisher lessif you know these nuts and bolts and apply them.
The numbers game
How does your publisher like numbers to be treated? To have one to nine as words, with figures thereafter? That is the style of many newspapers and is a workable option. Another is to use words for numbers up to nineteen or twenty, and figures for anything higher (this may be to avoid longer, hyphenated words such as twenty-one). Some publishers also like to use words for, say, approximate or round numbers ("It took about thirty days"), but use figures for strictly statistical material at all times ("It is 3 meters long and weighs 8 kilos").
How about dates? In the UK, dates are usually (in books, less so in newspapers) in the form "2 January 2006", which is logical, in that it puts the date before the next one up, the month, before the one after that, the year. Americans mostly write "January 2, 2006" or "January 2nd, 2006". Which does your publisher prefer? Look in the style guide.
You wont wish to pay much attention to all of this while the white heat of creativity is burning through your fingertips to that keyboard, of course. As an editor, I do tend to write and pay attention to the style both at the same time. But Im a nerd. I get paid to think that way. Im very boring at parties.
You, on the other hand, may wish to get the creative stuff down first, and then don a different hat and think about consistency while youre doing your first or second edit. Many people do it this way. If you have received that wad of paperthe publishers style guidehave a good read of it before you begin editing your work. Youll be surprised at how may words and phrases have two or more ways of being presented.
In the short series of articles for Writer to Writer that this article introduces, Ill be looking at various aspects of style: more on quoting, for instance; an article on some of the major aspects of punctuation; an article devoted to when to use which and when to use that (they are words that often get confused, which can be vexing); and an article on possessives (or genitives, if you prefer).
All of theseand the other aspects of the nuts and bolts of writing that Ill be coveringare more fraught with potential difficulties than many people think. But they neednt have you tearing out your hair. Language is a very logical thing in many respects (oh, yes, there are some infuriating exceptions and irregularities), and, once you get the hang of how words relate to each other and how the punctuation helps to preserve meaning, you begin to do things automatically.
So what can you take away from this first article? Well, think of all the words and phrases you know that could be expressed differently, that have variants. Then decide which you prefer (or which your potential publisher prefers). Make notes. Keep a page or two handy as a file in your word processor with a link on the toolbar, so you can call it up quickly to add new words and constructions, or refresh your memory on those youve already added.
Soon, these words and phrases will become ingrained and you wont need to look them up. Youll just remember instantly that this publisher (American) prefers -ize endings, while that publisher (British) likes -ise endings; that this publisher prefers "15 December 2005" and that publisher likes it as "December 15, 2005"; that this publisher (British) likes short punctuation (commas and full points) inside closing quote marks of short quoted fragments, while that publisher (British) likes them outside (dont worry: Ill be covering that one).
Being consistent in your writingright from the approach letter to the finished manuscriptsends a message to your intended publisher: this writer is a professional; this writer knows the nuts and bolts of English; this writer takes care.
Youll find more grammar tips in the book Ive produced with Stephen Blake (http://www.youcanwritebooks.com/). Its about how easy it is to get published and break through the brick wall of rejectionand it does have some writing and research tips, too. Youll find it useful. Were both published authors (our fourteen or so print titles are listed on the website) and professional freelance editors, so we know what were talking about, and for just a few dollars you could be on the way to being a published author before you know it.
|Quote of the Month:
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
Please note: Language is set as "English - Australia" - words are not spelled incorrectly. (Not intentionally, anyway!)
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What Do Publishers Want?
© Robyn Opie - All Rights Reserved.
I was sitting in a room with fifty or so writers and three publishers, when someone asked the question: what do publishers want?
Silence. Every head was turned toward the three publishers.
The publishers looked at each other, blank expressions on their faces. No one spoke at first. Each publisher was probably waiting for the other to speak.
Finally, one of the publishers said that she didnt know what she wanted until it landed on her desk.
Great. That was a lot of help!
We kept at them, like a pack of dogs gnawing at three bones.
The publisher went on to say that she wanted sparkle.
Terrific. All we had to do was paste sparkles to our manuscript.
If only it were that simple.
The publishers saw no escape. They had to answer the question, to ward off the pack of ravenous dogs. So they went on to explain.
What it came down to was this. Publishers want a writer who can:
They are also looking for that extra something. Sparkle. Freshness. Originality.
My publisher said the same thing. He was looking for sparkle. Freshness. Originality. And a surprise ending. He loves surprise endings.
Okay. But what does this mean?
When pressed, the publishers defined sparkle, freshness and originality as YOU. You bring a special element to a story that is unique. Your experience. Your personality. Your emotions.
No two people write the same story. We come at the same topic from different backgrounds, experience and personalities.
Pour yourself, your soul, into a story because that is what makes it special. You.
As an author of 49 published childrens books, I will explain this further using my experience as an example. But it doesnt matter what genre you write, publishers want that extra sparkle in a manuscript you.
The idea for my novel Backstage Betrayal originated from a personal fear and my high school memories of catty female behaviour. It was impossible for me to write from my personal experience without putting a lot of me my soul and my fear into the story.
Laura is rehearsing for the school play in an old theatre. She goes to the toilet and, while inside, the lights go out. Everyone goes home and Laura finds herself locked in the theatre.
Excerpts from Backstage Betrayal:
Darkness swirls around her thick darkness, like black fog.
She hates staring into the darkness. It is so black and unknown. She closes her eyes it makes her feel a little better. What should she do? What can she do?
A floorboard creaks. This time it isnt coming from her feet. Its further away, behind her, to the right. Laura stops, holds her breath and listens. Everything seems still except for the pounding of her heart and the trembling of her hands. Slowly turning around and squinting into the darkness, Laura sees shadows. Some shapes she recognises and some she doesnt. Is someone there?
All of the emotions that Laura feels are drawn from my own experience and feelings of being alone in the dark. I put myself in her place and vividly imagined every scene. I felt her emotion.
Its fun exploring your fears through characters. You get to experience the anxiety and insecurity from the safety of your home. You get to do things to characters that you wouldnt want happening to you.
Experienced writers often tell newcomers to write about what they know. One of the reasons is because you can put so much more of yourself into a story. I dont know what its like to be locked in a dark theatre. But I do know how the darkness, night, strange environment and unfamiliar noises can effect your imagination and composure. Ive experienced the feelings of being alone in the dark and can draw on them to give my story that extra sparkle.
However, it isnt easy pouring so much of yourself into a story. Youre bearing your soul to the world and it can be an uncomfortable experience having others read about something so personal. You feel vulnerable. Exposed. But its the difference between writing a good book and a great book. You must learn how to let go once the story is finished.
If you want to be published submit what publishers want the unique sparkle that is you.
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How do I?
Last month was a drought, but this month three questions came in!
BW asks: If a character has a history that must be explained to understand present actions--How do I impart backstory effectively without bogging down the story with a lengthy narration -- ? Does a dream work to do this?
A: Dreams can be used to implement backstory, but in my experience it can work better using 'flashbacks'. That's where your character will simply remember something from his or her past. This is generally triggered by an action or something that happens to the character. Backstory should be sprinkled sparcely thoughtout the story, and is rarely given in big chunks. This can make the story rather boring for the reader.
Here's a quick example of using flashbacks:
Janice was on the verge of panic as the cut on Pete's hand continued to bleed. The situation reminded her of the day her father shot and killed her mother.
(Not perfect, just a quick example.)
Lynn wrote: I was wondering if it is better when sending samples of my writing with a query to send photocopies of published piece or my own computer version which is available on email. (Or scanned into computer version which I haven't done.)
A: Lynn, if you have copies of the published work it is better to send those. But you really need to scan them if querying by email. I scan all my published pieces then convert them to pdf. This way you are almost guaranteed an editor will read them. Because of the risks of viruses, many editors simply aren't opening attachments these days, whereas they will open pdf's as they cannot contain viruses. (If you don't have a pdf converter - you can pick one up in the subscribers area.)
Kim wants to know: How do I break into the greeting card market?
Kim, unfortunately that is not my area of
expertise, and I cannot advise you. However, I did go to
Amazon.com and found they have a number of books on the
subject. If you click on the link (below) it will take
you to the correct area and you can see what is
If you have writing related question you would like answered, send it to:
Karolina Blaha-Black has recently had her work published in a book called Quotable Texas Women by Susie K. Flatau. "Besides my own quote about writing," Karolina writes "the book is a wonderful collection of quotes from Texas women and a real treasure to own. Read about it here: Quotable Texas Women
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