Monthly Archives: November 2012

Characters – Love them; love them not?

The other day my sister and I were talking about a book she’s reading. She said she was enjoying the book immensely, but the story’s main character was troubling her. “She’s heartless,” my sister said. “I don’t like her.” She almost spit the words out, like she’d just bitten into a bad tomato.

What a great reaction!, I thought to myself.  That author had done a terrific job of bringing that character to life. To me, that’s solid writing, when you can evoke a reader’s emotions – good or bad, love or hate – like that.

Much is said and written in writing circles and in reviews about a character’s likability, but I don’t think it’s necessarily relevant. When I read for pleasure, I’m not consciously calculating whether or not I like a character. I do subconsciously pick up on traits that I like, but more importantly, traits or behaviors that I can understand.

Let me clarify and make a distinction here. If you’re writing romance (as defined within the industry), I think it is vital that the main characters (the ones who fall in love) are likeable. It’s tough to make one character fall in love with another who’s a jerk all the time, after all. That’s not to say they should be perfect (quite the opposite), but they should be the type of characters readers can find themselves falling in love with, and the romance between the characters should be believable.

Aside from romance, though, I think it’s more important for a character to be relatable than likeable. Sometimes the “baddest” characters who do the most horrific things are the most interesting. (On a side note, I love writing bad guys. They’re my favorites. I love digging into their heads and trying to figure out what might have changed along that character’s life to make him or her a monster.) I think that’s what drives the popularity of some of the highest-rated TV shows and movies:  the fascination with the bad guy.

But “bad” isn’t enough. Some spark of humanity has to be present in that character’s profile, a reason that he/she turned bad. Why? Because can’t we all, in some deep, dark place in our psyches, at one point in our lives or another, imagine  being that angry, that self-focused, that we could almost understand the bad guy’s actions?

It’s that “almost” that keeps us fascinated, I think. We know we’d never go as far as these characters, but if they’re well written (acted), we can relate to or maybe understand, on some level, what they do and why they do it.

Look at one of our most beloved bad guys: Tony Soprano. He made New Jersey cool, didn’t he? (As a native Garden Stater, I say it’s about time!)

Tony could go from having drink at the sleazy topless bar that served as his headquarters (yuck), to having a fight with his wife or kids (most of us have been there, done that), from chasing off a bear in his back yard (yikes!) to ordering a hit on one of his competitors (no way), all without breaking a sweat.  But wait…he did break a sweat, didn’t he? In fact, Tony spent a lot of time on his therapist’s figurative couch. It was the therapist who served as the viewer’s conscience, I think – forced by her profession to try to help this man, this murderer, come to grips with what he’d done. I think there were times when she forgot who and what he was, times when she almost began to like Tony.

It was the same for me. Sometimes I sympathized with Tony and really pulled for him. And then he’d go and beat the you-know-what out of someone, or order the extermination of his nephew’s fiancée, and he lost me. It was a fascination with the yin/yang of his personality that kept me watching week after week. It’s the same reason I watch shows like Justified and Sons of Anarchy, shows that aren’t afraid to reflect the reality of life, that sometimes  good guys do bad things, and sometimes bad guys aren’t all bad.

People are people. They’re good, they’re bad. They’re strong, they’re weak. Characters should be the same, especially your main characters.  Even when drawing a character that’s (hopefully!) so far beyond an author’s reality – like a Tony Soprano – the author needs to incorporate the elements of humanity that readers will understand. With a full-dimensioned character like that, you can take your story anywhere.

So, to answer my sister’s complaint, I told her to keep reading. That character, like most people, had a lot of living, and growing, to do before the last page of her story could be turned.

Happy reading, happy writing!

Leah

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After spending her life working with words in various roles in both government and the private sector, including a 10-year stint as a freelance line editor, lifelong grammar fanatic Leah Price is excited about putting her skills and knowledge to work in the publishing industry as senior editor for Edward Allen Publishing. She also writes commercial fiction under a pseudonym and knows how tough it is to get all the pieces in the story puzzle to fit, but she loves the journey.

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Go Low(er) Tech and Fight Robo-Editing

I like big editing jobs. I like moving the words around and standing back to see what they look like. I like taking a green pen to a thick, freshly printed stack of pages. Word by word, line by line, page by page, and chapter by chapter, that stack of pages takes on its proper shape, and it is beautiful to watch.

In this computer-driven time, it would be easy to let the machine do most of the work, if I didn’t love doing it myself quite so much. I can see how other editors might be tempted to rely on the various bells and whistles found in most word processing software. That temptation, like most temptations, has its place. Even I have given in to the seduction of Search and Destroy – I mean, Search and Replace – to deal with consistent misspellings. Complete surrender to automation, however, can lead to an unfortunate editing misstep, which I call robo-editing.

Robo-editing relies on two problematic approaches to editing. First, it uses troubling editing “rules,” usually the ones that depend on the word “never.” The rules of the editing road generally don’t rest on absolutes like that. Robo-editing also utilizes Replace All. There are very few situations in which the use of Replace All is appropriate.

An example might make things clearer.

Some schools of editing teach writers never to use the phrase “a little.” A robo-editor plugs the phrase “a little” into the Search and Replace (leaving the Replace part blank) and then clicks Replace All. This will eliminate any and all uses of the phrase “a little,” and that’s a bad idea.

The difference between seductive coaxing and a command is the phrase “a little.” A child putting on a brave face for a police officer might cloak his fear by admitting that he is “a little” scared. Someone trying to minimize a big problem will call it “a little” one.

Robo-editing doesn’t care. The Replace All function doesn’t appreciate all these nuances. Robo-editors only know that some person said never to use “a little,” and now that phrase has been expunged from the manuscript.

Robo-editing sends a message. It says, “I didn’t make the effort to go through your document line by line. I can’t be bothered to read your work and assess it for voice, context, and cadence. I won’t even follow Search and Replace to each instance of your target phrase and make individual decisions based on my judgment.” If you’re comfortable sending that message, by all means, go right ahead and robo-edit. At some point in the life of the manuscript, a human editor will notice the robo-editing and draw his or her own conclusions, none of which is likely to be pleasant. That’s if you’re lucky. If you’re not lucky, a reader will notice. The reader’s conclusions will definitely be unpleasant.

So what should you do, as a writer, if you want to make sure you get all occurrences of your personal problematic phrases? You’ve got a couple of options.

You can still use the computer to do it. If you’re using Scrivener, the Search function will count and highlight every instance of your target words or phrases, and you can pop through and handle each one individually. If you’re using something else, you can still use the Search and Replace – just don’t use Replace All. Don’t even use Replace. Stick to Find. Find Next will get you through the manuscript, one instance at a time. If I have to use the Search function, this is how I try to do it.

You could also go old school and read your manuscript out loud. This is a good practice anyway. Reading out loud identifies unnatural dialogue, awkward construction, and any number of other problems. As you’re reading, mark your trouble phrases as you go. It takes time, but excellence will do that.

Stand up for humanity! Don’t let the machine do your job for you.

**Freelance editor Lexi Walker will be posting on issues of grammar, usage, and style twice monthly. She knows that her firm approach to editing stings a little but prefers to think that the momentary discomfort means the process is working.

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Beta readers ~ be careful what you ask for!

Some of you might know that I write commercial fiction under a pseudonym. As a grammar snob, I pride myself on generally clean manuscripts. Not that I don’t need editing — believe me, I do — but the edits usually aren’t for grammar or punctuation, at least not on a large scale. So when I pass my precious baby (manuscript) out to my group of loyal beta readers, I ask them to let me know of any glaring inconsistencies in the story (like my hero’s eyes are brown in the first chapter and blue in the second). These are the types of errors that are so easy for authors to miss because we’ve lived in the story for so long, and probably had multiple drafts where we’ve changed details like that, we tend to gloss over inconsistencies when we’re proofing.

A couple weeks ago I sent my newest story out to my group, and asked one person to share with her friend. I knew the woman to be an avid reader, and I figured it never hurt to have an additional set of eyes. It was probably two or three days later that that my friend sent me an e-mail asking, “Was the story edited yet?”

Immediately my writer’s “hackles” went up. “Yes,” I responded. “The edits are done.” I didn’t ask why, partly because I was rushed, and partly because I wasn’t sure I wanted to know, or not until I had a chance to brace myself! (I do have a fragile ego at times.)

Another few days passed before I heard from my friend again. She said, “Susie (name changed to protect us all) wants to know, isn’t it incorrect to start the sentence with the word and?”

Ah…there it was, the reason for her earlier question: Susie was misinterpreting my request for a beta read as a request for proofreading. Of course I want my beta readers to let me know of errors and typos, but I don’t expect them (or want them) to turn into line and/or content editors. I need them to read the story as they’d read any story and let me know if anything makes them stop and do a mental head-shake.

I responded that in terms of academic or business writing, that’s the general rule, but fiction writers have leeway to play with sentence structure and rules. It’s called literary/poetic license. Authors use literary devices to emphasize or clarify. Like using clauses in place of a full sentence (when the meaning is clear). Like ignoring the rules of paragraph construction and sticking a sentence (or a clause) in a separate paragraph to draw attention to or highlight the point.

And, yes, even like starting a sentence with the word and.

When writing for academia or business, (I believe) you have to follow the rules of grammar because it gives your argument, your purpose for writing the piece, credence and authority.

When writing fiction, we’re telling a story, not writing a doctoral dissertation, or an editorial. In fiction, the writer’s job is to draw the reader into the make-believe world and keep him or her there, and the judicious use of those literary devices helps writers to do that. At the same time, we trust our readers to know the difference between those elements and grammar errors.

So after having this discussion with my friend, I passed on Susie’s kind offer to borrow her grammar book and vowed that when it comes to beta readers, to be careful who I’m asking, and to be clear about what I’m asking for. Not only had I probably wasted that woman’s time and energy, but she probably got little enjoyment from proofreading a story as a term paper.

Thanks for visiting with me this week. Hopefully sharing my goof will help others avoid this pitfall.

Wishing all a blessed Thanksgiving, filled with the laughter and love of family and friends. And maybe even a few spare hours to read a good book!

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After spending her life working with words in various roles in both government and the private sector, including a 10-year stint as a freelance line editor, lifelong grammar fanatic Leah Price is excited about putting her skills and knowledge to work in the publishing industry as senior editor for Edward Allen Publishing.

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Help! I’ve misplaced my modifier and I don’t know what to do!

My target for this week’s rant is the misplaced modifier and its close cousin, the dangling participle. I can think of no other grammar no-no that can create as much confusion as these woefully common (and often hilarious) errors. Why? Because they cause a reader to stop mid-sentence and force the reader to reconstruct the sentence until it makes sense, which could be a matter of nanoseconds, or minutes. Either way, it’s not the goal that we, as professional writers, strive for, so we need to learn to recognize these errors and understand how to correct them.

Simply put, a modifier is a word or phrase intended to enhance or clarify another word or phrase. For most clarity, it should appear as close as possible to the word/phrase it’s modifying. When the modifier is misplaced or is left dangling, it confuses.  (Let’s face it, there aren’t many things that do well when improperly placed or left “dangling,” are there?) And it’s easy, so easy, to weave these gems, quite accidentally, into your writing, if you’re not paying attention. Your mind starts off one way, then takes a detour, and voila’! Your modifier is wandering off, enhancing some other word or phrase that you didn’t intend. In fact, in the case of a dangling modifier, the thing you’re trying to modify might have escaped the sentence altogether!

Here’s a (hopefully) obvious example of incorrect usage using “as,” which I find one of the worst of the misplacing culprits:

As a long-time employee, the CEO presented me with a silver watch at our annual awards ceremony.

The modifier in this sentence is: As a long-time employee. But what is it trying to modify? Who’s the long-time employee? As the sentence reads, it’s the CEO.  But that’s not what we mean, is it? The long-time employee is meant to be me.

To correct, we need to switch the point of view of the sentence from the CEO to me.

Here’s a corrected version:

As a long-time employee, I was honored to accept a silver watch from the CEO at our annual awards ceremony.

See the difference?

Another common mis-usage often happens when using the word “with.” Writers, pay attention when using “with”!

Excited, Sally ripped off the wrapping, tore away the lid, and dug inside the depths of the box with hands itching to be filled.

This one isn’t quite so obvious, and it probably wouldn’t cause too many lifted eyebrows, but it’s there: with hands itching to be filled. Exactly who or what has itching hands — the box, or Sally? Sally, of course. The problem occurred because I didn’t place the modifying phrase close enough to the word it’s supposed to modify (Sally).

A better construction would have been something like:

Excited, her hands itching to be filled, Sally ripped off the wrapping, tore away the lid and dug inside the depths of the box.

(Hey, sometimes it’s hard sometimes to come up with these examples! Anyway, let’s move on.)

Dangling participles/modifiers happen when the writer attempts to modify something that isn’t really there. Example:

Jogging down the path, a stone got lodged in my sneaker, making me wince.

Wow…I think I’d pay to see that stone jogging, wouldn’t you? Of course, I left the poor modifier (jogging down the path) dangling there all by its lonesome because I didn’t include “me” in the object of the modifier. I have my sneaker in there, but that’s not jogging either. I’m the one who’s jogging. (Not in real life, trust me. Although that’s a topic for another day.)

Correctly written, the sentence would read:

Jogging down the path, I winced when a stone got lodged in my sneaker.

Again, the sentence is not exactly worthy of a Pulitzer, but at least the right thing is jogging in this one.

If you find yourself misplacing or dangling your modifiers, take heart! You’re not alone! In fact, these offenses can be found daily in publications and advertisements, and many of them are quite funny. The next time you’re reading something and have to stop and think about what the sentence means, check for the modifiers and see if they’re where they’re supposed to be. After some practice, you’ll be more skilled at spotting them in your own writing. You might even have a few laughs along the way!

Words matter.

________________________

After spending her life working with words in various roles in both government and the private sector, including a 10-year stint as a freelance line editor, lifelong grammar fanatic Leah Price is excited about putting her skills and knowledge to work in the publishing industry as senior editor for Edward Allen Publishing.

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The Best Thing about Editing? Shopping.

I have a confession to make. I hate writing introductions. I struggled with the topic for my first post here. In future posts, I’ll be tackling some of the things that make editors cry (and not in a good way) and discussing some of the tools writers can use to make their work more effective. I just hate to open with complaints. At the same time, we don’t really know each other well enough for you to take my advice, right? This first post, then, takes up a reasonably harmless subject: shopping.

Only 15 days separate us from Thanksgiving, which means that the holiday shopping season isn’t far behind. In this opening post, I’ll share the most useful resources I rely on as an editor. They’re easy to come by, and they make great gifts for writers in any stage of their careers.

  1. A good grammar book. The one on my shelf is stolen; I took it from my brother after he graduated from high school. It’s old, but I tend to agree with Leah. I don’t think grammar should float on the current of popular opinion. Grammar is like a navy blue suit or a little black dress. It’s timeless and sophisticated, and put to its proper use, it’ll make you look that way, too. If you don’t have a sibling who will look the other way while you take his things, consider Jane Straus’s The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation. It’s approachable and easy to use, a great resource that blends the classic rules of grammar with modern usage. Her website also has a set of grammar quizzes to test your language mettle.
  2. The Chicago Manual of Style. The jolly orange giant goes beyond grammar and into the world of style to answer a writer’s most troublesome questions. Should “french fries” be capitalized? (It shouldn’t, and neither should “india ink.”) The Second Coming is capitalized, but hell, purgatory, and original sin are not. My copy falls open to Chapter 7, which includes the rules on compound words, possessives, and hyphenation. So many publishers lean on the Chicago Manual that it makes sense to get very comfortable with the rules. How comfortable? Well, I like to insert tape flags on the pages I refer to all the time. Seriously, I derive enjoyment from doing that. But I’m a geek. You might find that a little disturbing.
  3. A visual dictionary. The one on my shelf is a gift from the same brother from whom I stole my grammar book. A visual dictionary contains loads of pictures of objects as diverse as spacesuits, dining utensils, art supplies, and fashion accessories. Each illustration features captions with the proper names of the item’s components. Not only will a visual dictionary help you distinguish the fish knife from the cheese knife, but it’ll also tell you what to call that little rubbery thing between your glasses and your nose. (It’s a nose pad, the little oval gold thing inside it is a pad plate, and the thing holding it onto your glasses is a pad arm.) Sure, some of the information is a little obscure, but sometimes that’s a good thing. In his novel Intensity, Dean Koontz taught me what a pintle and gudgeon are. They’re little details that remind me of him every time I open a door. Visual dictionaries are available online, but they’re quite addictive. I dare you not to spend at least half an hour poking around Merriam-Webster’s.

If you’ve got the basics on your shelf already, the best thing you can do to build those language skills is to read. Reading builds vocabulary, exposes you to different modes of voice and tone, and shows you new and elegant ways to use the language. Read whatever you can, inside and outside of your chosen genre. Think of it like the “balanced breakfast” we used to see on commercials for cereal. Sure, we could just eat the Cocoa Puffs all by themselves, but you’re supposed to have toast, orange juice, and a piece of fruit, too.

The more you read, the more you’ll come to see the flexibility in some of these grammar and usage rules. That’s a good thing. It’ll give us something to talk about the next time I’m here.

What’s your favorite editorial resource book? I’m always looking for things to buy … and to ask for.

**Freelance editor Lexi Walker will be posting on issues of grammar, usage, and style twice monthly. She knows that her firm approach to editing stings a little but prefers to think that the momentary discomfort means the process is working.

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