Thursday, September 27, 2012

Who's Your Daddy?

In England you Give Way rather than Yield
My last two posts have been on perfecting the basics of word-smithing.

I'd like to end this mini-series with one last Mt. Everest of writing: correct punctuation.

I borrowed the following examples of the undeniable importance of proper punctuation from Sue Miholer (, a wonderful writer and editor who spoke at the Florida Inspirational Writers Retreat.

Note the distinct and astounding difference in meaning of the paragraph below with just a few simple changes in punctuation:

Dear John,
I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we're apart. I can be forever happy - will you let me be yours?

Dear John,
I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people, who are not like you. Admit to being useless and infereior. You have ruined me. For other men, I yearn. For you, I have no feelings whatsoever. When we're apart, I can be forever happy. Will you let me be?

Big wow, huh? In the first example, Gloria has the major hots for John. In the second, Glo wants to shed him like two-week-old leg hair. The exact same words were used for each, but sentiment completely shifted with the re-placement of a few commas, periods, and question marks.

My point?

We must proof our work and pay careful attention to how we use - or misuse- punctuation. Excellent references are Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, The New Webster's Grammar Guide, and The Chicago Manual of Style.

If we're not careful, we might one day inadvertently shed new light on even our own lineage with one missed comma:

I'd like to thank my parents, the Pope, and Mother Teresa.
I'd like to thank my parents, the Pope and Mother Teresa.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Is There an "A" on Your Forehead?

Rainbow at Niagara Falls
Following up my last post on mistaken word identity, I thought it prudent to touch on a few other common mistakes that stamp an infernal "A" (for Amateur) on the foreheads of wide-eyed, unwary new writers. 

The first, and most insipid, is the use of passive voice verses active voice. Passive means "being done to" as opposed to the active "doing."

Example of passive voice: "Johnny found himself lost because he was reluctant to ask directions." Active: "Johnny got lost because he was reluctant to ask directions."

Or passive: "A good time was had by all" versus active: "Everyone had a good time."

A subtle difference to you, perhaps, and possibly some readers, but a red flag to editors. They figure if you're sloppy or ignorant in writing passively, you're probably sloppy and ignorant in other writing basics and therefore not worth their precious time.

Another faux pas I see repeatedly in the work of fresh writers is the use of two spaces between sentences. Regardless of what your high school English teacher told you, these days only a single space is used after punctuation. Another red flag to editors that labels you with that big A.

Speaking of punctuation, in case you didn't know, there are vastly different opinions out there on the proper usage of commas and semi-colons. I received a 2-page manifesto from one of my publishing houses on their guidelines for commas. And of course those hard and fast "rules" differed greatly from those of my next publisher.

I've seen writers nearly come to blows at writer's conferences over semi-colons.

The answer to this conundrum? When in doubt, stick with the Chicago Manual of Style for books, and the AP Manual for newspapers and magazines. As long as you're consistent, any editor worth their ink will accept your well-written manuscript, knowing they'll be copy editing it before publication anyway.

Then there's the over-the-top creative use of tags (speaker attributions) that actually distract from dialogue instead of enhancing it. "Said" is generally considered an invisible tag, and although you don't want to overuse it by polka-dotting the page with it, you mustn't yield to the temptation to dress it up in a prom gown either.

"Mary retorted," "Lulu intoned," and "Peter rebutted" may seem clever at the moment of inception, but consider that they may become what I call "eye-ball walls" to the reader. That's anything that stops the smooth flow of mental images (like a movie playing in your head) and makes the reader think, "Wait. What was that?"

If your reader has to stop, back up, and reread anything you've written for clarification, you've just flunked Writing 101.

Try to avoid tags at all, especially in two-person dialogues. Instead, cleverly use beats (little snippets of action) to show who is talking, rather than stating the obvious. This also serves to keep that all-important movie rolling in the reader's head rather than reduce your dialogue to talking heads.

Annabelle stretched a tentative hand out to pat Jason's cheek. "I've always believed in you."
"I just don't know what to do." Matt rubbed the back of his neck as he paced the floor.  

Many of these far-too-common errors will be nipped in the bud by a professional editor, which I keep saying ad nauseum is an absolute MUST before your manuscript is submitted to a publishing house editor or agent.

Remember, the competition out there is fierce, and with an unpolished manuscript, you're entering battle with your chain mail down around your ankles and a big red "A" stamped on your forehead.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Mistaken Identity

Deb and Baby Blaine settling a dino tiff in Canada
I recently noticed, while reading the published newsletter of an author buddy, the statement, "I'm anxious to see my new grandson."

Now this is an accomplished professional writer - make that award-winning, best-selling author of dozens of wonderful books - and she, like many of us, sometimes slip-slides down the slope of mistaken identity.

Mistaken word identity. 

Did she really mean anxious, as in "worried" or "fear about some contingency" (Webster's definition), or did she mean eager, (enthusiastic desire")?

Although there might have been an element of nervous tension about meeting the bouncing baby grand for the first time, I'd be willing to bet the farm that her anticipation and excitement were more in the eager camp.

Anxious vs eager - just one of the many tricky word pairs that often suffer mistaken identity.

Can you readily tell the differences between these commonly misused couples?

Elude/allude                              past/passed                            illicit/elicit
except/accept                           further/farther                         then/than
i.e./e.g.                                     every day/everyday                compliment/complement
counsel/council                          principle/principal                   whose/who's

I have to admit, I often screw up except and accept, and have been known to illicit a response now and then. And is there anyone who really has a handle on further vs farther other than the brilliant writer kid in the movie, Finding Forrester?

Well, the point is, as a writer who is head and shoulders above the mundane pack, you should know the difference and be able to detect an incorrect usage immediately. (That means you're proofreading your work, right??) I guarantee you editors know the difference, and your blunders in substituting one for the other might mean the difference between publication or bewilderment at receiving a steady stream of rejection slips.
I hope this subtle remainder about alluding mistaken word identity and the impotence of proofreading your manuscripts will help you develop better work principals and disciple too take you farther along the every day rode to righting success.