The Naked Writer: Level of Capacity

We’re all different and have different abilities. Some of us were born with pencils clutched in our fingers and were writing hundred-word novels by the age of five. Others of us may have been a little slower—yet have a yearning in our souls to create with the written word. Does level of capacity count? Should someone quit before fighting the good fight to make it into print, guided by the dictum “quit while you’re ahead”?

Of course not.

Just as our writing levels vary, so do the reading skills of those out there who might buy a book or two. I’ve heard authors praised to the skies who demonstrate very little writing competence—and these writers may actually be extremely successful. They are touching a group of readers with their words, even if those words aren’t what would do it for the more sophisticated among us.

We cannot mark any level of writing power as a cut-off grade below which work will never be accepted or enjoyed. That’s snobbish, and ridiculous thinking. The work may have to be edited for obvious flaws but something about what’s conveyed might resonate with fans if the story or novel is allowed to reach them.

Sometimes, in fact, agents and editors may see a piece of writing as being too highbrow or esoteric to work for the markets they’re addressing. I myself have always written pieces to include exotic and well-researched backgrounds, niche characters and situations, and historic or ethnic specificities. Then I’ve sometimes come to see that while my story was nixed, the pieces accepted relied more on simple plots than on believable settings and atmospheres. So the desire for a level of expression honestly varies, and a more refined level of storytelling might not fit the bill.

Thus those writing at a simpler ranking can’t be excluded from the fraternity of writers. My old friend Steve Solomita who has enjoyed some mystery-writing success (https://www.goodreads.com/author/list/322592.Stephen_Solomita) once said to me in complete sincerity, “We’re all workers in the vineyard.”

Jerry B. Jenkins, one of the authors of the fantastically successful Left Behind series, was very straightforward in a writing advice book of his, stating that he’s no genius. But he expressed confidence that you don’t need to be brilliant in order to simply write.

Now let me add that all those with a yearning to write are welcome on board with whatever level of underlying competence. The drive, the passion, having something to say, makes up for a lot.
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You don’t need to be a writing great to join a Writer’s Digest class I teach. Coming up is 12 Weeks to a First Draft and a mystery writing class. And/or download my The Naked Writer for your Kindle at Amazon. Need editing? Send a comment here and I’ll send back a private reply.

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The Naked Writer: Level of Capacity

The Naked Writer: What’s the Problem?

I’ve pointed out in this blog thus far how students struggle with many very basic concepts of writing—from semicolon use to how to punctuate dialogue. What’s the real problem here? Maybe by looking into the root cause of all these glitches, we can arrive at a solution.

I’m pretty sure the problem lies in lack of education, which we can attribute in part to the students themselves, but surely as well to their teachers. I went to a pretty good high school in a middle-class community, and I can attest to the fact that I didn’t learn punctuation or specific nuances of writing in our common language.

The one good thing we were taught was the method of diagramming sentences. This also explains parts of speech to the learner. I can imagine when I say to a student that a word is used as an adverb in such and such a spot and not an adjective, a blank look will cross the person’s face. But how else to clarify?

At any rate then, somewhere in my 20s I began to work as an editor, and I did some writing. Too bad I, as well, really had missed a few building blocks of the trade. Not that I had a big problem because no one at my first job or second or third mentioned a thing about my writing weaknesses, and when I got to the fourth, the little errors pointed out were on the whole oddball. Only when I was hired someplace with a sharp copy editor and proofreading by fellow writers did I realize several additional problems… And only when I taught a class in punctuation did I understand I was missing out on a number of rules.

So my education had been incomplete all the way up—from grammar school through obtaining a bachelor’s degree and starting graduate school. And I was a good student who earned excellent grades.

I therefore think much of the problem my writing students have comes from an educational gap, not alone to be credited to their personal lackadaisical attitudes while in school. Then, recently, when I marked up a first submission from one student at Writer’s Digest University, she told me in surprise that no one had critiqued her punctuation during graduate school, where she had studied writing and had received a Master of Fine Arts degree. I’ve seen worse punctuation, for sure, but her punctuation was certainly not all that perfect.

What’s the Solution?

The solution to ignorance that comes by way of a lack of proper education is most definitely education. Luckily, we don’t have to return to K through 12 or even the university. We can educate ourselves, and will do so if we’re serious about writing as a career or even serious about writing a business memo with confidence.

How to study? Although some schoolwork might be beneficial, the problem often is that students enter classes in the mechanics of writing feeling at sea and so they remain throughout the course, grasping for some little hints along the way. That’s why I really think a well-motivated pupil can do a lot better book in hand. Yes, I recommend my own The Naked Writer in Kindle format (or my chapbook, Punctuation, which you can find at Smashwords). In both these works, the various points of punctuation, at least, are explained systematically and can be taken into the novice’s knowledge base step by step. The writing apprentice can read a segment once, then twice. When writing, the newbie might try to recall the rule that applies to this particular question—and the rule can be read over again—then again. And so on and so on.

The learning needn’t be rushed, glossed over, or jumbled. A bit of patience can be applied, and slowly, but surely, the writer learns and gains much self-reliance.

Other than that, the hopeful novelist can pay for a line edit. Let me know in comments with your email address if you’re interested in an edit. (I won’t post your edress for the entire world to see.)
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Take a class with me at Writer’s Digest University. Download The Naked Writer at Amazon, or to see writing style judiciously applied, read in print or in ebook format Question Woman and Howling Sky. Adults will enjoy my YA fantasy, The Heroine’s Journey, as will young adults. My middle grade fantasy, Strings, is also fun for all. Everything’s on Amazon along with some other ebooks there and on Smashwords.

The Naked Writer: What’s the Problem?

The Naked Writer: Continuing Quotes

I realize I keep saying something like, “Oh, wow, my students do this thing and I’m completely shocked…” And I was going to start this piece the same way. What the heck is going on in schools? Why don’t they teach students how to handle a continuing quote? Educators, get on the stick.

A continuing quote occurs when the writer wants to break a paragraph but let the speaker—the character speaking or person being interviewed or written about—continue talking in a direct quote with no intervening material.

Here’s what I see a lot of:

“A listing in our publication is better than an ad in a newspaper, sir. If you place a listing in this directory, the people in your area will be able to access it day after day, week after week, during the entire year.

A hundred-and-fifty-nine dollars total for a listing, but only $239 total for the listing and a one-inch ad. Wouldn’t you like to see your fine restaurant listed? People would call for takeout as well.”

This is wrong because each paragraph in the continuing quote has to start with quote marks. Here’s the revision:

“A listing in our publication is better than an ad in a newspaper, sir. If you place a listing in this directory, the people in your area will be able to access it day after day, week after week, during the entire year.

“A hundred-and-fifty-nine dollars total for a listing, but only $239 total for the listing and a one-inch ad. Wouldn’t you like to see your fine restaurant listed? People would call for takeout as well.”

As you see the second paragraph now starts with a quote mark. Now the format is correct.

However, in my opinion, continuing quotes should be kept to a minimum and avoided altogether when possible because they may confuse the reader. That’s right, though the reader’s confusion may last only a split second, why cause even a momentary hesitation in the experience of enjoying your writing?

Here’s how I actually wrote the above:

“A listing in our publication is better than an ad in a newspaper, sir. If you place a listing in this directory, the people in your area will be able to access it day after day, week after week, during the entire year.” Bonnie wasn’t sure if the man understood what she had told him, although he looked as if he might have.

“A hundred-and-fifty-nine dollars total for a listing, but only $239 total for the listing and a one-inch ad, like this.” She stabbed at the copy of the current directory to show him the size of the ad.

“Wouldn’t you like to see your fine restaurant listed? People would call for takeout as well.”

This is the type of format that I believe is easier to follow as well as livelier and more entertaining.

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Send a comment here if you want to inquire about an edit—or take a class with me at Writer’s Digest University. Download The Naked Writer at Amazon, or read in print or in ebook format Question Woman and Howling Sky. Adults will enjoy my YA fantasy, The Heroine’s Journey, as will young adults. My middle grade fantasy, Strings, is fun for all, too. Everything’s on Amazon.

The Naked Writer: Continuing Quotes

Dialogue—How Much

The word “dialogue” implies that I’m going to talk about fiction in this essay, but the actuality is that in writing journalistic articles, we also quote people’s speech. So what I say below may well apply to nonfiction writing. (I was a business journalist for many years.)

Dialogue.

How much dialogue should be included?

Word from the experts and sometimes me as well is that we should have plenty of dialogue from our characters (or interviewees). And “plenty” is a good amount. But the problem I see quite a lot is that writers will use dialogue in exclusion of narration. Speech, speech, speech. And that’s how all the information is presented. And the format can be both boring and really emotionless. Dialogue or constant quotes may miss out on nuance or humanity. I so want authors to vary their means of presentation.

“Wah wah wah,” said Charlie Brown. “Wah wah wah.”

What’s another format that should be toggled with the direct quote dialogue approach?

“Wah wah wah,” said Charlie Brown. The boy turned red with frustration and looked Patty right in the eye. He repeated himself. Then he told her that this time he was going to kick that football straight in the guts.

And for the news story?

“Wah wah wah,” said Charles Brown, independent candidate for the council seat left open last July by the death of 17-year council member Irene Patty. Brown in speaking to reporters after the debate noted that he was against continuing free lunches for public school children. “Free lunches may fill their stomachs, but leave them with empty souls.”

Another thing to watch for in writing dialogue is the ever-present danger of talking heads, also known as my turn, your turn. Dialogue without connective tissue is frankly boring.

“Wah wah wah,” said Charlie.

“Haw haw haw,” said Peppermint Patti.

“Wah wah.”

“Haw haw.”

Generally the talking heads includes some speaking without tags, leaving readers are on their own as to who has spoken, though sometimes little clues are given. But no adding the characters’ or subjects’ expressions, their movement in the room, or deductions about their attitudes.

However, going without tags can be a nice variation so long as who is speaking is clearly indicated by the words themselves or by an action taken before or after the spoken words.

“I can’t be pregnant. I’m taking birth control pills.” We can guess the speaker’s gender, so this must be Patti saying this and not Charlie.

“I hit him and hit him and hit him.” The accused murderer is undoubtedly the speaker here.

Charlie took another sip of the drink that had been set in front of him. “Wah wah.”

Charlie has spoken—and that’s why we include the action in the paragraph with his speech and not in the paragraph “belonging” to the other guy.

Dialogue is good and needed in fiction just as quotes are in an article. And while you’re allowed to be a little bit boring in a run-of-the mill news report (though not in a feature), fiction has to do a better job than being average. Dialogue is essential in fiction, but not all information can be delivered in dialogue. And who is speaking must always be clear.

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Send a comment here if you want to inquire about an edit or take a class with me at Writer’s Digest University. Download The Naked Writer at Amazon, or read in print or in ebook format Question Woman and Howling Sky.

Dialogue—How Much

The Naked Writer: One Word or Two?

A mistake students and clients make that surprises me a lot is the failure to know (or research) which words should be put together as a single word—or which supposedly single word is actually two words. Why should this amaze me? Because the dictionary is right here online and/or a simple search engine search can (most often) make the usage clear.

But I guess, to take a step back, what really catches me off guard is that the student or client doesn’t suspect that the two words might be taken as one or that the single word might possibly be broken in two.

Sometimes, yes, I know the answer. We write “online” and not “on line.” We write “ashcan” and not “ash can.” These are completely logical. How about wastepaper? Well, I just wrote it and spellcheck liked it, so I know I can leave it that way. On the other hand, it doesn’t like the word “spellcheck.” So let me go look that up. I do so by first performing a search. Universally, what I come up with for search results are spell check (one spell-check). Okay, I’ll concede. I’ll use two words. But the reader will never know I had the use wrong to begin with.

So the process goes. I look up everything if I’m at all likely to make a mistake. I don’t want to make a mistake. I want to have the right usage. So, my question is why my students and clients don’t look up the word or words. That’s part of the job of being a writer. And if I forget which the correct use is and come across the word again and again? You know what? I look it up every time. Because I can and I don’t even have to pick up a physical dictionary. Though if I think the physical dictionary has an older word I know is proper usage, I’ll pick it up and thumb my way to the page where the word should be.

And here’s the OneLook Dictionary if that will help: https://onelook.com/ . Yes, they spell that as one word: OneLook.

Oh, no, I just stumbled across this in a client’s manuscript: Hood winking… Means, I suppose, a winking hood.

Here are some I’ve seen recently:
bar tender
heart beat
home town
gate keeper
back pack
treachcoats
half way
under-lying

And much, much more. Please remember, I don’t know all the answers, but I look up everything I’m suspicious of and also if the spell checker flags the word and I think I’m right. Sometimes I am.
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Have you downloaded my Kindle stylebook, The Naked Writer? Have you taken a class with me at Writer’s Digest University? https://www.writersonlineworkshops.com/ I always have classes coming up and I know I can help you become a better writer. I have a 12-week novel workshop starting 12/7 and an 11/30 Fundamentals of Fiction. Or read a novel or two of mine, such as Question Woman & Howling Sky: https://www.amazon.com/Question-Woman-Howling-Sky-Hayden-ebook/dp/B019PUAVLI/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1511548622&sr=8-1&keywords=Question+Woman+%26+Howling+Sky . Post a comment if you want to contact me here.

The Naked Writer: One Word or Two?

How I Fuss My Way Through a Line Edit

“Conduct” a line edit? No, that makes me sound like an orchestra leader. Which is part of how I do a line edit—I check out the word choices.

I thought I’d take a break from the mechanics of writing (punctuation and such) and present a short piece on how I perform a line edit, though the work isn’t much of a performance. But people do say things such as “I went through and don’t have any questions because the presentation is clear.” “Thank you for commenting on the writing and letting me know the overall problems I need to fix.” “I appreciate the word choice substitutions. I can see they improve the work.”

Doesn’t anyone criticize me? I live in fear that someone will resent my changing their words. After all, what is meant by a line edit? Perhaps only that I’ll correct what’s wrong, and not tweak. But I’m filled with a compulsion to listen to the voice in my head telling me to change the word. So I do. 🙂 Do people complain? No. The only complaint I ever received on my line editing was from a well-educated fellow from Montenegro—yes, really—who had done his own translation from his native language. He wanted me to make the work seem as if an American had written it. I said that I’d made it quite readable but not entirely American sounding—yet the quaintness was charming. He wanted to sound like a native English speaker. Well, no, that wasn’t possible with just a line edit.

I would say over the years perhaps five or six students (not line editing clients) have been unhappy with one thing or another, such as after I said to a man from Brazil that I didn’t understand his written English and he replied, “How many languages do you speak?” One. Or when I told a woman she needed to actually write scenes and not summaries of scenes, which filled her with indignation. (Having only written for film—successfully—she apparently couldn’t make the leap to the novel.)

But I digress.

Hmm. How do I conduct a line edit? I begin to read… I’m feeling my way here. For most work, everything looks pretty good right now. I understand what’s being said. Only a few pages later, I start again. (And for the edit I’m doing currently, I started a third time.) Now that I’m warmed up and I can see more clearly what’s on the page, the writing isn’t reading quite as well as it did at first. Every word and its meaning counts. Some words don’t mean what they’re obviously intended to mean. I change the word. Maybe the whole sentence needs to be recast.

Passive writing has to be made active. (“The dog was eaten by the soldiers” becomes “the soldiers ate the dog.”) Incorrect use of subjunctive must be corrected (“If he were intending her harm” becomes “if he was intending her harm” because he might be).

I change a present tense out of place to past tense. I insert commas for direct address, correct the punctuation of dialogue (possibly thousands of times in a single novel—oh boy). Punctuation, punctuation, punctuation. Commas inside quote marks, periods inside quote marks. Recast the sentence to get rid of awkward wording Oh, oh, that’s “sight,” not “site.” Wrong name for the character. Name the character instead of “he.” Too many “said”s in a row. Get rid of the repeats, the near repeats, the too-close sounds. Look up the spelling of the corporate name. Fix the biblical quotation. Suggest a plot change to heighten the suspense… Grumble because the client doesn’t use a chapter break. And so on and so forth.

Ah, I’m done. Now that I’ve gotten the most obvious errors out of the way, I start all over. Not because the price of a second draft is built into the edit, but because I’m a bit of a perfectionist. And believe me, a second, full, double-draft edit is not amiss on a major work if the client wants to pay for a further review.

Now I’m really done, and early. Because I’m driven.

There you go. I’m sure I’ve forgotten many things I actually do look at, but whatever your work is you probably need at least one double-draft edit from me. No guarantees as to sales.

A friend of mine who edits freelance for the big name publishers was discouraged. They have no complaints about his work, but they object to his—to them—high-price billing.

“How can I bill fairly and keep those clients?” he questions when we’re speaking.

“The only way is to edit a big bestseller,” I respond. We look at one another, and we laugh.

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Send a comment here if you want to inquire about an edit or take a class with me at Writer’s Digest University. Or download The Naked Writer at Amazon. I look forward to the interaction.

How I Fuss My Way Through a Line Edit

Can’t Punctuate Dialogue? Consider the Sentence

Whereas everyone is welcome to write without a clue—you do have a computer, after all—unless you start with a strong foundation and build from there, your lack of understanding is going to cost you.

Recently a student of mine expressed strong irritation when I suggested she learn to punctuate. Yes, I really am that annoying person. Well, the next time I went through her writing, I restrained myself from spending the time and effort on such minor matters as how her sentences were put together. I should simply presume people will be happy to pay for an edit rather than learn some of the basics of writing.

I thought I might start here with the sentence, really for a reason that has to do with punctuating dialogue—the issue on my mind right now. Why? Because while line editing, I’ve found so many examples of a certain glitch that boils down to a mere misunderstanding of what a sentence is. Now, straightaway to it. (Of course this isn’t a complete sentence, but that’s beside the point…)

Here we go—and please approach this believing that comprehension will be easy and you’re sure to grasp what I’m saying:

“Yes, you see, but I’m from the future. Not just my future, but your future too,” Nora swallowed and her heart pounded, nearly pushing out of her chest. She wasn’t sure that Jake would take her seriously.

Okay, that’s part one of the mistake I’m discussing. The question is, where does that second sentence end? With a comma, we indicate a sentence will go on. Therefore, what is the punctuation here saying? It’s saying that the sentence is:

Not just my future, but your future too, Nora swallowed and her heart pounded, nearly pushing out of her chest.

Does that look like a sentence to you? It’s not a sentence—it’s a mess. The hero of our story is the editor, who rushes in and places a period at the actual end of the sentence:

“Yes, you see, but I’m from the future. Not just my future, but your future too PERIOD” Nora swallowed and her heart pounded, nearly pushing out of her chest.

AHA! Now we have packaged the actual sentences separately. And that’s why we don’t use a comma with actions or explanations after the dialogue. We do not by kneejerk put a comma before the end-quote mark. Because we don’t know yet if the sentence has ended. Maybe yes, maybe no.

“Yes, you see, but I’m from the future. Not just my future, but your future too,” Nora said PERIOD She swallowed, and her heart pounded, nearly pushing out of her chest.
How simple is that? We have to know where the sentence ends. At the end of the sentence, we place a period. Otherwise, we’re continuing on.

Here’s part two of the glitch.

“Yes, you see, but I’m from the future. Not just my future, but your future too.” Nora said. She swallowed, and her heart pounded, nearly pushing out of her chest.

Thus the person who thinks the sentence is simply ended before the “Nora said” creates a separate sentence where none is wanted. This individual doesn’t realize that the quoted dialogue flows on to the attribution.

I’m not saying that this individual is you—probably not, and you probably stopped reading when you saw where I was going with this. Oh, well. But maybe I’ve worked off a little steam.

The error—this set of errors—is extremely common. I just edited a 500-page novel in which the author avoided the mistake perhaps three or four times. Don’t be that person.
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Whatever your habitual errors are, punctuation, writing style, or even not understanding what the agents/editors are looking for, if you’d like to correct your flaws, take a class with me at Writer’s Digest: https://www.writersonlineworkshops.com/. Upcoming are Fundamentals of Fiction, Writing the Mystery, and 12 Weeks to a First Draft. Or for some less-expensive guidance, you might want to download The Naked Writer for your Kindle at Amazon. Yes, I work with clients privately. Send a comment here.

Can’t Punctuate Dialogue? Consider the Sentence