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.