Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Fix Your Story: Let's Strip! Eliminating Two Utterly Unnecessary Words from Your Manuscript

Hello again! As promised, here is the second blog post in the series entitled Fix Your Story. Today we'll focus on paring down unnecessary words from your manuscript. Well, two words in particular. (We'll start small and branch out later.) Ready for the two words you must, must, MUST kill in your writing? They are:




Do this experiment. Pull up your documents folder and pick a work in progress--any ol' tale will do. Now activate your FIND function and type just (or that). How many instances of each do you see? Whatever the number, plan on cutting 90% of them. 

I can hear you now: "But I've already revised this story!" Well, revise it again. Review each and every time one of the aforementioned words appears in your manuscript. Why? They are unnecessary. Utterly, completely, truly superfluous. Clutter. Garbage. 

Before submitting a story to a given market you want it as polished as possible, right? So do everything you can to heighten your chances of acceptance. Remove those justs and thats. Take out the trash, why don't you? No one likes to see refuse, so dispose of it. When you're finished, reread your story and see if it doesn't shine a little brighter.

Look at this example:

Can't we as easily rephrase it to say: "He's not into you" and still come to the same meaning? And see! In one quick stroke, we've scaled back our text by 1/3 of its original content. Now that's the power of revision

Of course, you won't want to pull every instance of these pesky words from your story--there will be cases when such words are the only ones you can use . . . but those cases are rare, my writing friends. Very rare. Use these tiny four-letter words sparingly and your story will read all the tighter . . . and just may be the difference between a rejection and a sale. 


Saturday, April 26, 2014

Fix Your Story: Punctuation and Quotation Marks in American Writing

Hello, folks. This is the first in a planned series on the nuance of writing. 

Learn to write effectively and you can have anything you want in life. - Sean Shesgreen, English professor, Northern Illinois University

Many of my writer friends are wonderful, capable writers. A few are true masters of the craft. A very few. As in I can count them on three fingers. Mastering any craft takes years of practice and honing. Trying and retrying. Creating, scrapping, recreating. Writing is not something a person can just "decide" to do with any measure of success. Just because one can string words together into a coherent sentence does not make one a writer. One cannot hope to write the great American novel if one has not spent years - if not decades devoted to understanding the nuance of the craft.

To write effectively, a writer must master punctuation, mechanics, grammar, and syntax. If you do not understand these words, please take a moment to Google them before reading on. I'll wait.

Welcome back. Let's start with one aspect of punctuation today. Far too often, I see errors like this from American writers (why the country distinction? I'll explain in a moment):

I just read Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher", and it was great!

Can you spot the blemish? No? I'll give you a hint: it's in the punctuation. Go ahead and Google "comma usage." I don't mind waiting; I'm patient. Incidentally, while we're waiting, patience is another thing every writer must have - you're going to learn to wait a long time for responses from publishers.

Here's another example to peruse while our Googlers are Googling:

My favorite story is Ambrose Bierce's "Chickamagua".

Same thing, only this time look up "period usage." In the U.S., at least, comma and periods defy logical placement. You'd think they would fall outside the quotation marks in these examples because they're not part of the title, but they don't. In Britain, logic dictates where to place those pesky punctuation marks, but not here. 'Merica: defying logic since 1776.

As an American writer, you need to know this. NEED. TO. KNOW. THIS. If you don't, professional editors/publishers will mark you as an amateur. And if the editor/publisher doesn't care about punctuation placement, then, as a writer, you should question their professionalism. 

The only exception to this rule is if you are enclosing a single letter or numeral in quotation marks as in these examples:

Shelly stepped through the door marked "A".

Bob's jersey bore the number "3".

On a similar note, colons and semicolons go outside the quotation marks in both America and Britain, like so:

In October our class read "The Monkey's Paw"; we also read other scary stories.

These players must report to the room marked "Athletics": pitchers, catchers, and infielders.

I've spent thirty years writing stories. I went to college to study writing because writing is what I wanted to do: I wanted to be a writer. But not just to write stories; to learn to write them effectively. And doing that begins and ends with the nuance of the craft. 

Writing is like any other job: you learn to do it effectively or you fail. Period (see what I did there? Heh.).

No one who's never built one wakes up one morning and says, "You know what, I'm going to build a robot today!" and then does it with any degree of success. Same goes for writing. You must learn how before you can do it successfully. So get busy learning. Then go write the great American novel.

(Next post: Let's Strip! Eliminating Two Utterly Unnecessary Words from Your Manuscript)