Friday, 6 July 2018

My Screenplay Location Is Getting World Attention (Well, Sort Of)

This next, as Paul Harvey used to say, is partly personal.

As I write this, France and Uruguay are playing their quarter-final World Cup match in a Russian city
The Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary,
Nizhny Novgorod. Thanks to Culture Trip.
most of us Americans have never heard of: Nizhny Novgorod. And it gives me an odd feeling of almost surreal connection.

That's because Nizhny Novgorod happens to be one of the cities I chose to mention (chose to bomb into oblivion, actually, but I claim immunity because I later restored it) in a science-fiction screenplay. Here's an excerpt:

(to Tejat)
I was just telling them, my last assignment was in a place called Nijny-Novgorod.
(to everyone at the table)
I hated that post, but now I kind of miss it. We used to go to this bar. It was very old, I guess, and some of the others liked it because you could get vodka there for cheap. But I miss it for the people. There were some crazy characters there. I'm going to go back and visit, if they don't post me on some starship somewhere.
(shaken, but making an effort to be friendly)
You could always program the holodeck with it, if you do end up on a starship.
(with her mouth full)
Yeah, Faine, great idea. I'm going to do that. You know, they say Leo Tolstoy was a patron there.
What is that city, Lobi? Niv...
Nijny-Novgorod. It's in Russia, on Earth.
Mowrogh walks to an empty workstation.
Computer, display images of Nijny-Novgorod.
Please specify parameters.
It's a city on Earth.
There is no record of a Nijny-Novgorod in the Sol system in the last five hundred years.
Nado sits at her desk having a videoconference with Admiral Lee.
Wow, Merenish, this could turn out to be something big after all.
I'm sorry to bother you at home, but I wasn't sure this should wait until morning.
No, don't be silly. I remember Nijny-Novgorod. Never been there, but I've certainly heard of it. Near Moscow, I believe. As soon as I get off here I'm going to send a couple of cadets out there, just to take a look at it. Ten to one, it's just a computer error and we can stop worrying about it.
That would be nice.
Yes, but meanwhile we should plan for the worst. If this really is a missing city, somehow removed from not only the present but the past as well, then you've got yourself one hell of a mission. What do you need, Merenish, if this turns out to be true? Your team was put together to catch a shapeshifter; this new mission would be very different.

Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Why You Should Polish Your Manuscript

One way you can tell professional novelists from hobbyists is by seeing who polishes their manuscripts. Polishing a manuscript is the last step in writing it, but many new writers make the mistake of leaving out this essential step.
A real ad served on a site I visited

Because polishing a manuscript is also called self-editing, many writers confuse it with editing and suppose it's someone else's job. After all, you can't edit your own work, right?

Right, but your editor can't do her job until you've finished doing yours. (For the sake of clarity, I'll refer to writers as 'he' and people who help them as 'she'--just because I happen to be a female editor.)

The Goal

It's just about every writer's dream to produce a hit that sells hundreds of thousands of copies...or why not a hundred million while we're at it? While there's no secret recipe for winning the bestseller lottery, there are plenty of ways to make sure your book will lose. And one of those ways is letting readers find mistakes in their copies.

To sell well, your book needs to create buzz. To get buzz, you have to put it into people's heads that your book is 'the real thing.' If they think it's an amateur attempt at a novel, or a manuscript that's so good it's going to be published someday--or anything at all short of a bona fide, perfect final product--that buzz will never have the chance to get started.

So besides having an enticing cover, a killer plot and fascinating but relatable characters, your book--if it's ever going to have a chance to hit the big time--needs to have:
  • Proper spelling
  • Proper punctuation
  • Proper capitalization
  • Proper spacing
  • Grammar that accurately communicates your message on the first reading
  • A consistent, engaging voice

The Process

Now that we know where we're trying to go, how do we get there? The major publishing houses of the old print-book industry perfected a process that works at least as well for us in the internet age as it did for them in their day. It's easier to understand if you look at it backwards, so here it is starting with the final step:
  • 11. Printing
  • 10. Proofreading: A sharp-eyed individual carefully searches the book to catch any stray errors that could hurt its public image.
  • 9. Approval: The author and publisher agree that the manuscript is in its final form and is ready for publication.
  • 8. At his discretion, the author implements the corrections and revisions suggested by the line editor.
  • 7. Line editing: Someone with a fresh perspective catches the errors the author missed and makes suggestions for improvements.
  • 6. Polishing: The author carefully reads through the manuscript, correcting any errors he finds and making sure the narrative sings and every paragraph has the message and tone he was going for. 
  • 5. Rewrites: At his discretion, the author implements the changes suggested by the content editor.
  • 4. Content editing: The content editor makes suggestions to improve aspects such as clarity, structure, flow and suspense.
  • 3. Final solo draft: The author tweaks the manuscript until the glorious story in his head is now fully reproduced in the manuscript.
  • 2. Intermediate drafts: The author improves on the first draft.
  • 1. First draft: The author begins with a very rough version of the story.

What Happens When You Don't Polish Your Manuscript?

Leave out any of these steps, and you seriously undermine the success of every step that comes after. Think about it. If you give your editor something like this...
On top of all of that though, in his effort to posit himself as some kind of martyr “for all people” he tells us that getting on a plane for a few days in sunny Puerto Rico where he cut through standard government used barbed wire to and trespass to be arrested, was posed a major risk to his life as if the government were killing protesters, while at the same time showing us details of the efforts made to be arrested.  
...she's not going to be able to do a whole lot with it. It would be like calling in a maid with a duster after finding your house flattened by a mudslide. The maid will dust the rubble, if you really want her to, but you'll be wasting your money.

More Posts on Polishing Your Manuscript:

How to Edit Your Manuscript by Michael Lane
10 Ways to Improve Your Writing by Derek Haines
On an Economy of Words by Dan Moore

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Five Writing Mistakes You Shouldn't Fix

If you're writing for a scientific journal, then your English should be perfect. But if you're writing a novel, there's such a thing as being too perfect. Here are five rules of perfect English that you should usually break when you're writing fiction or casual nonfiction:

  1. Don't use contractions. Contractions are perfectly acceptable in creative work, and it's your choice as the author whether to use them or not. As we write, each of us settles into a unique voice, and if yours is rich and musical, your readers will look forward to hearing it in their minds as they read each of your books in turn. For most of us, forcing the contractions out of our prose gives it all the grace of a love song full of hiccups.
  2. Don't start a sentence with a conjunction. This is an old rule that's obsolete now. If you pick up a book written in Victorian times, you'll find a lot of very long sentences, their many clauses often joined together by conjunctions, and unless the book uses incorrect grammar on purpose (Huckleberry Finn comes to mind.), you won't find any sentences that begin with conjunctions. And there was no need for it: the thinking was that if you needed a conjunction, then the new clause related somehow to the clause before it, and therefore they both belonged in the same sentence. Modern English values shorter, more concise sentences, and tacking on clause after clause just because their concepts are all related is no longer considered good writing. But a conjunction can still be useful to show how a new clause relates to the one before, even though we no longer stuff them both into the same sentence.
  3. Don't split your infinitives. This rule never did make much sense in English, as Steven Pinker explains:  
  4. Don't dangle your prepositions. The concept behind this rule is that since every preposition has an object, we may as well place each preposition neatly in front of its object to avoid confusion. That sounds good in theory, but in practice it tends to produce a lot of awkward
    Real people don't speak with
    perfect English, so your
    characters shouldn't either
    ... unless they're this guy.
    sentences and may even cause as much confusion as it prevents. But if you want your stories to be full of to whiches and for whats, then have at it.
  5. Make every sentence perfect, even in dialogue. There's just about no more sure way to mark yourself as a dilettante - and provoke your readers to put your book down - than to follow this rule. A good writer creates characters who feel real, and yours won't feel real if their speech sounds pompous or recited. It has been my experience that even most well-educated people make mistakes frequently in speech, even linguistics professors at prestigious universities. But there are a few rules you should be careful to follow in dialogue: the ones that help the reader clearly see what the speaker said. Be diligent with your use of quotation marks, keep your punctuation as it should be, and be careful with your spelling. But don't correct your characters' grammar. How they speak is an important part of who they are.

But whether we are following them or breaking them, rules are not what's important. When our stories finally make it in front of our readers' eyes, all that will matter is whether we have communicated.

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Writing Tip: How Adverbs Can Weaken Your Writing, and How to Find Them

I've seen a lot of 'grammar hack' tips that say you can find adverbs by just looking for words ending in -ly. The problem with that is that some words that end in -ly are not adverbs (Think early.) and there are also lots of adverbs that don't end that way.

Don't worry, there's a better way.

What Is an Adverb?

The official definition I had to memorize in home-school was this:

An adverb is a word that modifies a verb, an adjective or another adverb.

If you're not a grammar nut, that may be just a bunch of words to you. Don't worry, I'll walk you through it.
'Modify' is just a fancy word for 'change.' In grammar lingo, a modifier is a word that affects another word's meaning in some way.

Adverbs modify verbs.

Some examples:

drove recklessly
drove sadly
drove illegally 
drove fast

The words recklessly, slowly, illegally and fast are adverbs. Each one affects the meaning of the verb drove in a different way.

Drove is an action verb, but some sentences have being verbs instead. Being verbs are words such as is, was, and will be.  Adverbs can modify being verbs, as well. In these examples, the verbs are in bold type and the adverbs are in ALL CAPS:

She was pregnant YESTERDAY.
He will be happier TOMORROW.
Our blankets would be drier INDOORS. 

But how do we know that yesterday, tomorrow and indoors modify the verbs in these sentences and not the nouns or pronouns? Because they wouldn't make any sense that way. Let's try it with the first sentence: There's no such thing as a 'yesterday she.' Same thing goes for being 'yesterday pregnant.' The only thing left for yesterday to modify is was

Another thing I learned in my home-school grammar classes was that adverbs answer questions starting with the words when, why, where, and how. Yesterday answers the question 'When was she pregnant?' 

Adverbs modify adjectives.

It's easy to see how the adverbs affect the meaning of the adjective red in these examples:

bright red
dark red 
almost red

Adverbs modify other adverbs.


One way adverbs weaken our writing is by telling instead of showing. Telling that your character drove recklessly is boring. Showing what happened when she got behind the wheel might be very exciting. Adverbs can also take the punch out of high-energy scenes or make sentences feel cluttered and harder to understand.

But not every adverb is your enemy. In fact, did you know that the word not is an adverb? A 1631 printing of the Bible omitted that adverb just once. Sure enough, it made the sentence much more interesting.

Finding Adverbs

If you're taking a grammar test, then the only reliable way to find all the adverbs in a piece of text is to find the verbs and then see which words modify them (and which ones modify them), and then go through the same process with the adjectives.

But if you're out to strengthen your writing, try this instead:

  • Look for words that tell how something was done (recklessly, fast, sadly, jealously...). Find ways to show instead of tell. The Emotion Thesaurus is a great resource for this.
  • Look for words that clutter up your sentences, taking the punch out of your action and the clarity out of your narrative.
Remember, grammar isn't about following a set of rules to the letter. It's about using words to your best advantage.

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

How to Plot a Novel

A novel without a plot isn't a novel. At best, it could be a series of interesting vignettes. More likely, though, it will just be a bunch of meandering thoughts written down. Even if you're a pantser (you just write by the seat of your pants instead of planning first), your novel will still need a plot. But just how do you plot a novel?

Your novel needs a hook to grab readers' interest, not a cliche to turn them away.
Start your book by grabbing the reader's interest. This opening
line works only for comedic works such as fairy-tale parodies.
First, you'll need a hook. The bar has been raised since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle got away with "Mr. Sherlock Holmes, who was usually very late in the mornings, save upon those not infrequent occasions when he was up all night, was seated at the breakfast table" (The Hound of the Baskervilles). 

Give people a reason to bother reading. Better yet, make it so they've just got to know what happens next. If the book weren't already famous, then a story about a guy who suffers from insomnia and eats breakfast wouldn't seem worth my time.

Two openings I do like: "In ninety minutes, Wilkie would die" (Ray Flynt: Unforgiving Shadows) and "This time there would be no witnesses" (Douglas Adams: Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency).

Next, establish motivation and conflict. As early as you can, you'll want to answer these questions:
  • Who is the main character?
  • What do they want?
  • Why can't they get it?
Together, the answers to these three questions form the premise of your novel.  Don't confuse premise with plot. The plot builds on the premise and keeps the reader engaged all the way to the final page.

Your story, of course, will proceed with the main character's attempts to get what they want in spite of whatever stands in their way. It's important for your main character to take an active role. Passive characters who just watch things happen aren't nearly as exciting or fulfilling to read about as the ones who struggle to overcome their circumstances.

Then you'll want to complicate the problem. This usually happens about one-third of the way through. In many books, the main character's problem seems about to be solved at this point, but then the bottom falls out and the stakes are raised.

This middle part is where most beginners fail. Without good plotting, the story sags and the reader is obliged to slog through the muck until things become interesting again near the end. Or more likely, they'll just abandon the book and tell their friends, "It was interesting at first, but then it got boring."

About two-thirds through, your character will start to make progress in overcoming all that trouble you've thrown at them.

At the end of the book, they'll get what they've been wanting all along. Or maybe they'll discover that what they wanted doesn't exist or they don't want it after all. In any case, the story should give the reader a satisfying sense of closure.

One more thing: unless you're writing a novella, you're going to need some subplots. These are story threads that run alongside your main plot and make the book feel richer and more real. They follow the same pattern as the main plot (blocked goal, complication, resolution) and play a supporting role. In the end, the main plot and all the subplots will come together into one great resolution.

If you're getting ready to write your book, or if you're stuck in the middle of one that has lost all its energy, try using this time-tested method for how to plot a novel.

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Writing Tip: What's a Dangling Modifier, and Why Should I Care?

Usually, when I line edit a book, I find one type of error over and over throughout the manuscript. I just finished proofreading a memoir, and the favorite error of this particular author seemed to be the dangling modifier.

What's a dangling modifier?

One word at a time: 

A modifier is a word (or group of words) that describes or changes another word. In the following examples, the modifier is in bold and the word it modifies is in CAPS:
  • A yellow CAT sat on a sunny porch.
  • I found a completely mud-covered CAT in my bed.
  • A story about a CAT with a liquor license is not my cup of tea.
  • My hand was SHAKING yesterday.
  • My sister's footman was SHAKING most shamefully when the Governor came.
  • You can't tell me your weren't scared when you were SHAKING like an earthquake!
A dangling modifier is a modifier that appears in the wrong place in the sentence. 

Usually, the results are confusing or even nonsensical:

My sister's footman was shaking when the Governor came most shamefully.
Like an earthquake, you can't tell me your weren't scared when you were shaking.

Sometimes, a dangling modifier seems to make perfect sense, and just changes the meaning of the sentence:

I found a cat in my completely mud-covered bed.
Completely mud-covered, I found a cat in my bed.

One type of modifier that is often guilty of dangling is the participial phrase. That's a phrase (a group of words) that begins with a participle. A participle is essentially a spin-off of a verb. You can look up the definition in a dictionary if you want, but it may be easier to learn it from a few examples. The first word in each of the boldface phrases below is a participle. The boldface phrases themselves are participial phrases:

Mrs. Addison closed her eyes when she heard Edward rip his pants climbing the ladder.
Hated for her racist policies, Mayor Smith lost her bid for re-election.

Now, here is how those participial phrases might look if they were misplaced, or dangling:

Climbing the ladder, Mrs. Addison closed her eyes when she heard Edward rip his pants.
Hated for her racist policies, the city did not re-elect Mayor Smith.

In the first example, it is now Mrs. Addison who is climbing the ladder...with her eyes closed, no less. What Edward is doing, besides ripping his pants, is anybody's guess.

In the second example, the whole city, and not just its mayor, is hated for 'her' racist policies. You can call a city 'her,' right?

But what if you're not a grammar nerd?  

Is there an easy way to avoid dangling your modifiers?

Yes, there is. Please, please don't be scared off from self-editing over a little thing like dangling modifiers. 

Just read each sentence while asking yourself whether the modifying parts of the sentence (the parts that describe or give added meaning) actually modify the right words. If they do, they will help make your meaning clearer and your text more elegant (Elegant doesn't mean fancy or snobbish, but streamlined and with a beauty that comes from being 'just right.')

If you do that, you'll probably catch most of your dangling modifiers, along with a lot of other types of mistakes, even if English isn't your best subject.

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Is Writers' Block Real?

You open your manuscript file, you navigate to where you left off last time... then you just sit there and stare at the white space.
Writer's block: you've finally sat down to write, but all you can do is stare at the page.
Sitting there staring at the white space.

You go back and read what you've already got, hoping that will get the creative juices flowing. Nada.

You look at your outline. You look at your notes. You turn on your favorite writing music. You try to get back the feeling you had when you first imagined the story. Still nothing.

So you decide go online to see what other writers do when this happens to them. And somebody tells you that the last hour of your life didn't happen. "Writer's block isn't real. Therefore, you don't have writer's block. Therefore, just get back to writing."

I don't know about you, but articles like that don't help me. Telling me I'm not experiencing what I'm experiencing has never made the problem magically go away. If it did, I'd start telling everyone I met that there's no such thing as sickness or pain. "It's all in your head. Or maybe you're lazy or looking for attention. Just get back to feeling good."

Writer's block is as real as a sunset. It could be argued that a sunset is only a combination of conditions (moisture in the atmosphere and the viewer's position relative to the sun) but that doesn't make it any less of a real experience for billions of people every day. If you're experiencing writer's block, then writer's block exists. It's a real problem for you that requires a real solution. "Just get back to writing" doesn't cut it. You already tried that.

When I was in school I had trouble with math. If I didn't know the solution to a problem, my strategy was usually to sit there at my desk and "try hard." Trying hard involved staring at the page and tightening my facial muscles until they hurt. It was exhausting. It made me hate math. And it didn't work. To make matters worse, I felt guilty because the fact that I hadn't come up with an answer obviously meant that I wasn't trying hard enough. Now I save myself all that trouble by simply analyzing the problem and figuring it out.

The same strategy works when I don't know what to write. I take a good look at the problem, and once I understand it, the solution is usually easy to find. Sometimes the story doesn't work, and I need to go back and do some revisions. Sometimes I'm distracted or not feeling well. The reasons for my writer's block vary, but once I figure out what's keeping me from writing this time, it's just a matter of taking whatever steps are necessary to eliminate the cause.