Category Archives: Tips

Fearing agents’/editors’ pet peeves

I just came across Thomas Weaver’s great post on Thinking to myself – or not that raised an interesting point about sometimes having circumstances where you need to dare to break some of the “rules” that seem to be so important to literary agents and editors.

Reading the beginning of the post, where Thomas explains the redundancy of adding “to oneself” after “thought”, at first I thought to m— I mean, I just, er, thought, “Heh, silly noob mistakes.” (Then I ran off and searched my manuscript for occurrences of “to herself”, “to himself”, and “to myself”.)

But seriously in all seriousness(*), I find it scary that agents/editors seem to have all these semi-undocumented pet peeves and the poor sods who submit their hard work and may commit one or two of them (which may soon be me!), despite the fact that these faux pas are easily corrected easy to correct, may never hear back from them nor ever find out what they did wrong.

(*) See what I did there? I avoided triggering someone’s pet peeve against adverbs (against which I’ve ranted previously) by using an adverbial phrase. Same thing, really (except it’s less succinct), but strangely enough, the same people that really mind adverbs don’t seem to mind adverbial phrases. Hypocritical of them, I know, I know… but they seem to “make” the rules.

I hope that there are more “reasonable” agents and editors out there than I realise (despite the fact that I understand how they came to be that way; I’m sure some of the things they have to read are just… shockingly bad). Because I’ll be running that gauntlet soon(ish). #amwriting

Wise Old Tree

Even this Wise Old Tree doesn’t know all the pet peeves that need to be avoided. (Oh, fine, I admit it – the tree doesn’t really have anything to do with this post’s topic. I just wanted to sneak another one of my wife’s great photos into my blog. Sue me.)

Does anyone have (or know of) a list of these types of pet peeves, or unwritten rules, for authors to avoid? And please don’t point me to the Turkey City Lexicon – in my opinion, that’s just common sense mixed with “never do this!” overreactions to serial-pattern-abusers.

Fool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb – Errata

As mentioned in my review of Fool’s Assassin a bit over a week ago, I thoroughly enjoyed the book, but it was quite full of errors, including little typos, grammatical mistakes, spelling mistakes, repetitions and factual errors. If you’re following my posts, you’ll know that I have a hard time reading past those, so for this book, I took it upon myself to write down all those things that nagged me. Still a great book, mind you… but I think many of these could have and in fact should have been caught by editors and proofreaders.

Fool's Assassin Errata

Some are things I’d have suggested if I were Robin Hobb’s editor or beta reader, others are plain errors. Both are things I’d like my beta readers (when I get to that stage… haven’t forgotten your offer, Suzanne!) to point out to me, because often, as the one doing the writing, you’re too close to the forest to see the trees, or too close to the blackboard to see the context, or… you get the picture.

So, below is my list of corrections of Robin Hobb’s latest book, Fool’s Assassin, in order in which they appear in the book, listing the page number in my copy (the UK large paperback version; see the review for cover photos) and using the categories “Error”, “Note”, and “Guess”, as well as these abbreviated ones:

Cons. = Consistency
Conv. = Convention
Gr. = Grammar
Punct. = Punctuation
Rep. = Repetition
Sp. = Spelling
Sugg. = Suggestion

Page Type Correction/Comment
2 Gr. “[…] do wonder, sometimes, if […]” – The if should be whether to avoid ambiguity.
5 Note Example of correct usage of whom: “On whom else […]”; also on p. 201 – I’m glad the author isn’t one of those who believes whom to be dead! Having said that, see errors below.
7 Conv. “I AM an old man.” – CAPS should be replaced by italics. There are several occurrences of this throughout; I’m guessing this was meant to be italicised later?
10 Guess “[…] guard contingent […] to rival the Queen’s Own.” – I don’t recall that the Fitz books had a “Queen’s Own” guard contingent (used as a proper noun), but could be wrong, or it could be the introduction of a new term, or accidental capitalisation of Own.
19 Rep. “Of course not!” – Patience says “of course” three times within six lines.
20 Rep. “[…] presence of all life, of course, […]” – In the paragraph directly following Patience’s above, Web says “of course” twice within two lines.
23 Gr. “Who do they hunt?” – Should be whom, as they is the subject: They hunt whom?
25 Cons. Fitz says that it’s been “almost ten years since I’d killed anyone”, then, on page 31, he says it was “over a decade” since he’d even thought of killing anyone. No significant amount of time passes between the two occasions.
41 Gr. “[…] it was what I smelled made me […]” – Is there a that missing, or is that intended to be colloquialism (which would be very unusual for Fitz)?
47 Rep. The word “market” is used three times in the same sentence. The first one could be dropped without losing any meaning.
66 Gr. “[…] needled my Skilled at him.” – Perhaps due to an edit; should be Skill.
86 Gr. “Who would you write your memoir for?” – Should be whom.
86 Rep. Two paragraphs begin with “<Something> shocked me”.
92 Rep. Two now occurrences in quick succession: “[…] was guttering now. […] Morning was not far away now.”
103 Cons. “Autumn went out […] as ever it was in fall.” – Not 100%, but I don’t believe the two can be used interchangeably, “fall” being US English and “autumn” being UK/AUS English.
109 Error “She […] wiped vainly at her seventeen.” Huh? Copy/paste error?
112 Cons. “When I had visited the Fool’s old home, I had thought only to look at it for a time and touch the stone that once I had had a friend…” Not sure, but the “stone” seems out of place; the mountain homes weren’t made of stone and there was no other significant stone there as far as I know.
125 Gr. “Who do I have who understands who we are…?” – Should be whom.
127 Gr. “This were the sort of puzzle that I dreaded […]” – Should be was.
132 Gr. “She was too young to ask her permission.” She and her refer to the same person (Bee); since she’s not asking for her own permission, it should be something like “She was too young for me to ask her permission” or “She was too young to be asked for her permission”.
140 Gr./Rep. “[…] wondrous […] wondered […] wondered” within three lines. Also, “as I wondered if” should be whether (it’s not a condition, it’s an either/or case).
151 Conv. “It IS foolish.” – CAPS should be replaced by italics.
189 Gr. “There was no scatter of spoiled pens, no open containers of ink.” – Nitpicky, I know, but to get subject-verb agreement, it should be “There was […], there were no open containers of ink.”
195 Punct. “But now that Bee is here..,” – I’m guessing the comma should be the third dot in the ellipsis?
201 Error “[…] carried away from me a five or six times a year.” – The first a should be deleted, my guess is, “few” was replaced by “five or six” at some point.
204 Rep. “Yet […] Yet […] yet […] yet […]” – Not sure whether this is an intentional juxtaposition, but it seems a little excessive.
219 Gr. “In the middle of briar patch […]” – There’s an article missing; the or a briar patch.
220 Punct. “[…] Cook Nutmeg and our grave steward ?” – The space in front of the question mark should be deleted.
249 Sp. “[…] her differences as short comings.” – Shortcomings is one word.
249 Gr. “I had refused to consider if […]” – Should be whether.
282 Gr. “I recalled that my father said […]” – Should be had said.
286 Sugg. “I longed to be able to better hear” – Without another phrase to follow, I’d rearrange to hear better.
295 Error “Her lips lip curled in a cat smile.” – Looks like a last-minute replacement gone wrong, either lips or lip should be deleted.
307 Sugg. “You’d be putting yourself beyond the pale.” Nitpicky, but this phrase wouldn’t make sense in a world without Ireland or Russia, nor would the modern interpretation of “unacceptable behaviour” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beyond_the_Pale).
309 Punct. “‘You aren’t.’ Chade cut in decisively.” – I believe Chade cutting in refers to his words, “You aren’t”, hence they should be followed by a comma, not a full stop.
312 Rep. Near the middle of the page, Fitz says that he’d known Riddle for years, and that he’d once left him for “worse than dead”, and that Riddle had forgiven him for it. He’s already said pretty much the same thing previously in the middle of page 292. One instance should be edited.
327 Sp. “He was busy, I knew, and he put Withywoods into an uproar with his business.” Since he’s not running a business, it should be busyness (the state of being busy).
350 Sugg. “After you tell Amos, then you must […]” – Redundant then, unless the purpose is to emphasise the order (which doesn’t seem to be the case here). And no, I’m not Shaky Amos ;-)
370 Cons. “Would she read the scrolls in the library?” – Unless there’s a room that hasn’t been mentioned previously and isn’t on the map, Bee is probably referring to the room that has always been referred to as Fitz’s study.
391 Sugg. “[…] I realized I had been walked toward […]” – Does Fitz mean that Bee walked him there, or should it be had been walking?
396 Punct. “‘[…] told me that he would hide in th . . .’” – I’ve never seen, in formal writing, an ellipsis cutting off speech in the middle of a word. Conventionally, shouldn’t that be an em-dash? I.e.: ‘[…] told me that he would hide in th—’ The same occurs on pages 474 (“would dare t…”), 484 (“Unles…” – really, one s gets cut off…?), 489 (“If it would please you, sir” is interrupted but has no end punctuation apart from the single quote), 567 (“Skill-linked. S…”), and 624 (“If they see u…”).
406 Error “I paid it no more mind to this than […]” – Another late edit? Should be I paid it no more mind or I paid no more mind to this.
412 Sugg. “I refused to […] puzzle any more on her message.” – I don’t think puzzle should be followed by on… “puzzle over her message” perhaps?
421 Punct. “Such a peculiar idea!’” – Missing start (single) quote to match the end quote.
422 Gr. “Did she used to stutter then?” – The word did already indicates the past tense, hence used to should be changed to use to (otherwise it’s like saying did she went…).
426 Sugg. As on page 434, I think the word bonefire (“had made our bonefire”) should be changed to bonfire (even though that word originates from bonefire and bones were, in fact, on the fire).
432 – 433 Rep. “She […] was adept at avoiding me.” Then, a page and a half on, “I sensed that Bee was avoiding me […].”
444 Sugg. “[…] and finger combed his hair” – Since finger isn’t used as a noun, shouldn’t it be hyphenated, i.e. finger-combed? Not sure, but couldn’t find either version in the dictionary.
463 Gr. “[…] taking a short cut through the gardens.” – I’m pretty sure shortcut is one word, though it could possibly be hyphenated; but it’s not a cut which is short.
469 Error “I opened his eyes […]” – Bee shuts her eyes tightly a few lines earlier, so it should probably be opened my eyes.
472 – 473 Sugg. The tenses in the paragraph beginning “I took her to […]” are a little confusing, mainly because it switches back and forth between the past tense and the pluperfect tense. Do “that evening” and “that night” refer to the same night, before the time Fitz is describing? Should it be “that evening, when I had returned”, and “that night, I had slept”?
491 Cons. Bee plans to be first to the dining table, but “Shun had preceded me”; her tutor “was behind” her. The order is described very carefully, yet when the tutor arrives, he apologizes to Fitz. When did he get there?
504 Error “I wondered if they thought he already knew all about me or if, as I did, knew it indicated he already disapproved of me.” – Apart from the if that should be whether, something is missing there; leaving out the subordinate clause “as I did” leaves “[…] or if knew it indicated […]”, which doesn’t make sense.
510 Sugg. “[…] with earnest mockery.” – Shouldn’t that be “with mocking seriousness” or similar? It seems the author is trying to express that he’s mocking, but pretending to be serious; “earnest mockery” sounds as though he’s seriously mocking someone.
521 Error “[…] several of your wish yourselves elsewhere.” – Should be of you.
529 Sugg. “[…] charms carved from antler” – Not sure, but shouldn’t it be from antlers, or from an antler?
541 Error “[…] and it become even rarer once one has a child.” – Should be becomes.
552 Error “He twisted away to me to reply to [someone else]” – Should be away from me.
555 Gr. “[…] how much further he could see from his height.” – Should be farther, since it relates to physical distance.
556 Error “[…] the thirsty garden that only been waiting” – Should be that has only been waiting.
560 Gr. “Row of scars lined his face” – Should be rows of scars.
568 Error “How could I call for you to save me from when I had not rescued you […]” – There appears to be a word missing after from.
625 Error “[…] and when back for Priss” – I think when should be went.

I thought I’d post this since I haven’t had a reply from either HarperCollins Australia nor from Robin Hobb’s facebook page. Maybe they’re already aware of these issues; if not, I hope someone somewhere comes across them and finds them useful to improve future editions of this great book.

What distractions do you use to clear your head?

Whether I’m writing or working on other things, sometimes taking a quick break to go off and do… something… can be a great way to clear your head of whatever details you’re currently tackling. It allows you to take a step back and approach the same task with a fresh mind. Obviously this isn’t something you want to do while you’re “in the zone”, but rather when you feel your “mental stamina”, if you will, becoming a little depleted.

Here are some of the things I tend to do:

  • Play a quick game of free cell
  • Go outside to play with the dogs
  • Do a bit of stretching (I should do that one more, methinks)
  • Scramble and solve my Rubik’s cube
  • Check the TV schedule and program my recorder if I want to catch something specific
  • Take a look through the online news
  • Go get a drink of water

On the other hand, these are the things I try to avoid when I want to make progress (because they could lead to spending a whole lot more time on stuff I shouldn’t be doing right then):

  • Turn on the TV “just to see what’s on”
  • Log in to my favourite game (Guild Wars 2) to see if any guildmates are on
  • Pick up a book (that one’s really hard to resist)
  • Watch stuff on youtube (it’s never “just one”!)
  • Sit anywhere where the cats like to claim your lap

How about you, fellow writers (or other creative types)? What works well for you, what do you try to avoid? Please let me know in the comments!

Put some “Leeroy Jenkins!” in your writing

It’s been a long weekend here with Monday being a holiday, and I’ve had some time to indulge in one of my time-wasting fun hobbies, playing Guild Wars 2 (don’t worry, the post is writing-related… I’ll get to that). The guild I’m in is small, but we have our fun, including a spreadsheet shared on Google Docs in which we document all our hilarious (mis-)adventures and references to some gaming-related things we feel everyone in the guild should be aware of.

For those who don’t know the reference, “Leeroy Jenkins!” became an infamous battle cry by a character of the same name in another MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online) game, World of Warcraft (which I don’t play but like most people I’ve heard of it). Apparently, his guild was meticulously planning their strategy and setting up their forces out of range of where the one of the harder boss fights in the game would begin when he simply charged into range of the boss, kicking off the battle, and yelling “Leeeeeerooooy Jenkins!” His guild attempted to come to his aid, but all the careful planning was out the window and he got everyone killed.

So what’s the point of my post, and how does it relate to writing, I hear you ask? Well, here it is:

The next time you write a story, I challenge you to introduce a character into it (not the main character, but a side-kick maybe, or the “bad guy”) who adds an element of chaos and unpredictability. The extent of chaos added is up to you, and will of course depend on the genre. But having a “wild character” who doesn’t always act the way someone with more common sense would expect can be both fun and a nice way to direct the action in an unexpected direction (of course it shouldn’t be abused as a deus ex machina plot device, but you get the idea; use within reason). Make sure that character’s motivation is a good fit – is he (I tend to think it would be a “he”, though a “she” could work just as well) deeply troubled, or does he have a twisted sense of humour, or perhaps a social or mental disability? – and plant some seeds for it early on. He could be anything from a “troll” to a “sassy mischief-maker”, from a “compulsive impulsive” to a “common-sensically-challenged dolt”, or from someone who thrives on beating long odds to a plain “tool” – and have fun with it.

Some characters that come to mind in some of my favourite stories who are unpredictable to some extent are the Fool from Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy, and Auri from Patrick Rothfuss’ The Kingkiller Chronicle trilogy. Both were very positive characters; a negative example was The Joker from The Dark Knight (brilliantly portrayed by the late Heath Ledger), whose absolute lack of fear and lack of respect for anything arguably made the story much more interesting.

What are your favourite “Leeroy Jenkinses”? Have you ever created characters who cause chaos? Do you think it could be a good idea or is it something you’d rather stay away from?

Planning the perfect murder

If you’re here because of the blog title and you’re some sort of law enforcement type, please go away. I’m not really planning an actual murder. Well, ok, it’s an actual murder, but not an actual person – just a fictional character.

If you’re here because of the blog title and you’re a fan of murder mysteries, please go away. Well, all right, you can stay, but if you expect this post to be about whodunit-type writing, you’ll be disappointed, I’m afraid. I write fantasy at the moment, but I suppose the topic of this post applies to writing in general.

So gather ’round, the Internet is a big space, I’m sure we can squeeze all three of my followers in here.

For reasons I explained previously, I’ve had a stop-start-stop-start relationship with my writing recently. Partially because of time constraints, but also because… well, I’ve been putting off writing the next bit of glue that needs to hold some other pieces together. Not because of writer’s block or anything like that – thankfully, I’ve never had to deal with that. No, for me, that’s usually a sign that there’s something I don’t completely like about where my story is going, or how it’s going there. Consciously or unsubconsciously, I stop myself from doing what I was about to do.

Don’t tell anyone, but I often have some of my best ideas in the shower. I’m a morning person, but only if I have my hot shower to wake me up. Prior to that shower, I’m a grumpy zombie, hardly able to open my eyes. Once I’m in, I wake up and sometimes have some great thoughts. (I apologise if that’s more than you needed to know. I needed to say that for things to make sense. To me, at least; I have to read my posts too, you know. I’m getting to the point now, don’t you worry.)

Anyway, so as I woke up this morning, it struck me that what I needed to do was to kill off one of my characters. On some level, I’ve known that for a few days, but I like… her. (Going with “her” but not admitting it’s a female character. I just don’t want to be continually ambiguous in the next few sentences.)

People die in books all the time, but when I say “killing off a character”, I don’t mean that a writer’s protagonist walks along and suddenly a tree flattens some guy in the background. I mean that one of the major characters, whom a writer has spent some time and effort endearing to his readers, meets an untimely death, the description of which is bound to bring a tear to the eye (or at least a mental “Awww!”) of the emotionally invested reader.

One writer who is well-known for killing off major characters is George R. R. Martin. Incidentally, one of the reasons I like epic fantasy is because the writer can invest some time in endearing multiple characters to the reader, only to have them kick the bucket when it suits the writer or the plot (or not kick the bucket, and the reader will be interested in how the story continues for that character). Shorter books have a harder time evoking that “Awww!” effect, because the only way to get it when a character dies who hasn’t had much screen time (“page time” for books?) is to make it clear that a protagonist is negatively affected by the death, and to hope that the reader’s connection to the protagonist is sufficient to carry that emotion across from the dead-guy-to-protagonist relationship to the protagonist-to-reader relationship.

How do you go about planning the best way to kill off a character?

First, it’s important to remember that the story is more important than the character. As a writer, you tend to form a relationship with characters you’ve created (at least I do), but sometimes you have to create some emotional distance and sacrifice that character to the Story God for the greater good. Then, find a way that character can die, hopefully in the right spot inside the boring-gory-cheesy triangle. I could draw a picture of that, but it would probably just look silly – I’m hoping you’re with me without a visual aid. You don’t want the scene to be boring, but not so overly exciting that it comes across as cheesy. I guess gory could work in some genres, but mostly you want to a) make it unexpected, yet realistic, memorable, yet not too exotic, and b) emphasise the impact this character’s death has on your protagonist(s). For the death to serve your story, it has to lead to the protagonist doing something he would not otherwise have done.

The death is also a great chance to tell the reader more about your supporting cast by describing how they are affected by it. Villify the bad guy by describing how he just smirks, or humanise him by telling readers that he didn’t really want to go that far, or is filled with regrets. Show how the protagonist’s best friend is trying to put on a brave face because she knows how much the dead character meant to him, but inside she’s struggling not to break apart herself.

Have you committed any good fictional murders lately? Know any good tips for writers about how/when/why to kill off characters? Or do you have any “favourite” (good or bad) character deaths that affected you? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

10 more common mistakes writers shouldn’t make

Previously, on Amos M. Carpenter

In one of my very first posts, back in early March, I wrote about 10 common mistakes writers shouldn’t make. Spotting mistakes is one of my gifts – or curses; hard to say which at any given moment – and I’ll go over some I notice in writing of all types, from Internet scribbling to serious books.

To recap those from the last post, the five easy ones were:

  1. Definitely
  2. Don’t add apostrophes to make plurals
  3. Homonyms: “its” vs “it’s”, “their” vs “there” vs “they’re”, “your” vs “you’re”
  4. Using “alot” a lot
  5. I before E, except after C… how hard can it be?

The five that were slightly trickier:

  1. Careful with your tenses
  2. Singular “is” vs plural “are”
  3. Who thinks of whom
  4. The postfix -ward vs -wards
  5. Using “if” vs “whether”

Continuing on from last time, I thought I’d blog about 10 more mistakes that have caught my eye.

Five (arguably) easy ones

1. Separate

Like “definitely”, this is one of those words an incredible number of people just do not know how to spell. It’s not “seperete”, or “sepret”, or “separete”. If you can’t remember it any other way, think of the word “karate” when you write it.

2. Space before punctuation

I believe that some people who also speak (and read/write) French get confused on this one (because in French, you use a space before punctuation). Or they just don’t know any better. In English, there is no space before punctuation like commas, full-stops, exclamation marks, or question marks. (“No space for you!”) Of course there’s one space after them, though. With en- and em-dashes, it can be different, depending on which style guide you’re following, as some prefer to use spaces both before and after them.

3. Couple OF

Dropping the preposition “of” after using “couple” is becoming more popular. However, I’d always recommend adding the “of”, as dropping it is mostly due to writers following in the footsteps of sloppy speakers. In spoken language, of often gets abbreviated to o’, so we go from “a couple of apples” to “a couple o’apples” to “a coupl’a apples” to “a couple apples”. It’s the same with “a cup of tea” becoming “a cuppa tea” – but would you ever say “a cup tea”, dropping the “of” completely?

I recently noticed how much this annoyed me when I read Patrick Rothfuss’ otherwise wonderful books (as I mentioned in this post). He’s one of those people (or perhaps it’s his editor?) who don’t believe “couple” needs a preposition, and many times while reading his story, it jarred me enough that it broke my immersion. (He’s still one of my favourite authors. I’m a forgiving sort of person. At least when someone tells such great stories.)

4. Then vs than

This one should be very simple – use then when referring to time, use than when comparing – but many people still get it wrong. First comes one thing, then something else. Jack is taller than Jill. Simple.

5. Have isn’t of

When “have” gets abbreviated, as in “I could have” becoming the contraction “I could’ve”, it sounds like, but isn’t “I could of”. I suppose people who get this wrong just write things the way they hear it, but pausing just a second to think about it should make it obvious that the two are not interchangeable. I could of, would of, should of used could have, would have, should have.

Five more, slightly trickier

Ok, I’m sure you knew all of the above, so here are some that are just a tad more advanced.

6. Is “alright” all right?

Many careful English users would consider the shortened form, “alright”, to be less acceptable than “all right”, especially in formal writing. Some would even consider it to be an invalid word, but it can be found in some writing, mainly in the US, so perhaps it will become more acceptable in time. For now, I’d recommend sticking with “all right”.

7. Further vs farther

You’ll know this one if you’ve seen Finding Forrester. It’s easiest to remember if you keep in mind that “far” relates to (measurable) distance, as does “farther”. On the other hand, “further” is used when denoting an abstract amount of something. So it’s “set them farther apart”, but “of no further value”.

It gets tricky when the dividing line between the two isn’t immediately obvious, as in “to go one step further/farther” – you have to ask yourself whether it is a physical step (i.e. “farther”), or a metaphorical step (“further”).

8. Capitalisation of formal titles

Obviously, certain things are always capitalised (capitalized, if you prefer – in Australia, we use the “s” form, I believe both are used in the UK and the US prefers “z”), such as days of the week, languages, or countries. But what about formal titles, “honourifics”, like General, or Professor, or Queen? Are they capitalised or not? Well, it depends on how you use them. If the word is used to refer to a particular person holding that title, it should be capitalised. If it is used to refer to a group of them, or to the title itself, leave it in lowercase (with the obvious exception of being the first word in a sentence).

Thus, it would be “Professor Smith”, or even “there’s the Professor” (despite the name not being used, it’s a particular professor), but “he’s a professor at my university”, or “the professors have arrived”.

If you invent a title for your story, you should treat it the same way.

9. Full-stops (periods) after abbreviations

When do you place a full-stop after an abbreviation? Why do you sometimes see it written as “Mr.”, and sometimes as “Mr”?

In British English (similarly for AUS/NZ/SA as far as I’m aware), the deciding factor is whether the abbreviation begins and ends with the same letters as the full word or phrase. Since “Mr” does meet this criterion (mister), there is no full-stop: Mr Jones. “Prof.”, however, does not begin with “p” and end with “r” (professor), so it gets a full-stop: Prof. Jones.

In US English, I believe the full-stop is always used. Just something to be aware of when you read and write.

10. Ellipses at the end of sentences

The ellipses I’m talking (well, writing) about are the ones in creative writing that indicate the speaker trailing off, or leaving something unsaid, as opposed to those that indicate an omission in a quote.

This is one that depends on which styleguide you follow. Some argue that an ellipsis (dot dot dot) at the end of a sentence finishes that sentence, while others consider it a part of the sentence and add a fourth dot to end the sentence, just as if the ellipsis had been any other word….

Personally, I add the fourth dot, even in informal writing (e.g. in blog comments), but I think the main thing is to pick a convention and stick with it consistently.

Conclusion

There you go, I hope some of these common mistakes have refreshed your memory of what to look out for, or perhaps even taught you something new.

Which errors do you frequently commit, or spot? Which ones really annoy you when you see them in written form? Or do you think sticklers for detail (like me) should just stop with the nitpicky posts already? Please let me know in the comments!

Understanding Poetry – A to Z: U

U is for Understanding Poetry. Does that phrase ring a bell for you, somewhere in the dark recesses of your mind where you stash your movie knowledge? If not, maybe this excerpt will jog your memory:

To fully understand poetry, we must first be fluent with its meter, rhyme, and figures of speech, then ask two questions: (1) How artfully have the objectives of the poem been rendered; and (2) how important is that objective? Question one rates the poem’s perfection; question two rates its importance; and once these questions have been answered, determining the poem’s greatness becomes a relatively simple matter. If the poem’s score for perfection is plotted on the horizontal of the graph and its importance is plotted on the vertical, then calculating the total area of the poem yields the measure of its greatness. A sonnet by Byron might score high on the vertical but only average on the horizontal. A Shakespearean sonnet, on the other hand, would score high both horizontally and vertically, yielding a massive total area, thereby revealing the poem to be truly great.

Are we there yet? Yes, it’s from one of my favourite films, Dead Poets Society (although I keep wanting to add an apostrophe at the end of “Poets”… grrr). It’s the section from the fictitious poetry textbook by “Dr J Evans Pritchard, Ph. D.”, which Keating (played wonderfully by Robin Williams) gets the students to read before demanding they rip it out of their books. His comment about trying to shoe-horn something as ethereally beautiful as poetry into a mathematical formula?

Excrement! That’s what I think of Mr. J. Evans Pritchard! We’re not laying pipe! We’re talking about poetry. How can you describe poetry like American Bandstand? “I like Byron, I give him a 42 but I can’t dance to it!”

Now the section they rip out was in fact taken from a poetry textbook still used in the U.S., from chapter 15 of Laurence Perrine’s Sound and Sense: An Introduction to Poetry. In Perrine’s defense, it’s not as bad (when read in context) as the film makes it sound, but the point remains that trying to apply an objective formula to something that’s typically very subjective is not going to work in many cases, as much as some people would like it to be that easy.

Keating goes on to make his point (and I’ll get to mine soon, promise!):

We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, “O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?” Answer: that you are here – that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?

Great, but what does this have to do with writing, you ask? Well, the next time you need to introduce an interesting character in your story, consider introducing her by exposing her to something she absolutely disagrees with, and have her handle the situation in a manner as extreme as befits the situation.

When we show what a character likes, it reveals a little about them, and may invoke sympathy in some readers who have similar preferences. Showing how a character reacts when confronted with something they detest, however – now that will really let the reader know what they are about. After shocking the reader (or viewer, in the case of this film) with the unexpected reaction of a teacher asking his students to rip out pages from a book, and displaying what he is really passionate about, whether we agree with the action or not, the reader cannot help but be left with an impression that here we have someone not afraid to stand up for what he believes in.

To what will your character react in an extreme or unexpected way? What will your verse in life be? Let me know in the comments.

Here’s a video of this part of the film in case you’d like to relive it – enjoy!

Five aspiring authors in a cage

Most people would have read the “five monkeys in a cage” tale. If not, google it or (if you’re lazy), watch the summary on vimeo. Essentially, it is a tale encouraging us to question why things are sometimes done the way they are done with no apparent reason.

Five monkeys in a cage

Five monkeys in a cage (ok, the picture has more than five… it still gets the point across I think)

Today, I read fellow blogger Jodie Llewellyn’s nice post on “Adverbs… yes or no?” and I agree with her about adverbs getting a bad rap (not “wrap”, by the way ;-) ), but couldn’t help but notice that some of the comments there were fairly one-sided and “anti-adverb”. Is comparing people who advise against using adverbs to the five monkeys left in the cage a little extreme? Perhaps, but so is flat-out advising against the use of adverbs.

Adverbs are not evil, people.

As with so many things, the importance is to use adverbs in moderation. Granted, many of the commenters did advise moderation, and some pointed out why their overuse should be avoided. I don’t disagree with that. But saying their use is the “easy way out”, or a “shortcut”, that removing all adverbs from a manuscript makes it “stronger”, and that “said” should never be modified with an adverb? Really? I don’t want to offend anyone, and I don’t want anyone committing the strawman fallacy of claiming that I advocate liberal use of adverbs in all styles of writing (I don’t), but that just sounds like parochial adverb-bashing to me.

I also noted (with the slightest of smirks, I must admit), that those with adverb-allergies don’t mind using rather long adverbial phrases. How is that any better?

Journalism is probably an area where adverbs should be avoided more than in fiction. Sections in fiction where the reader should be left to fill the partially-drawn canvas with her own imagination should have fewer or no adverbs.

However, adverbs can (I stress can) be useful: they can clarify, modify, moderate, strengthen, explain; they can be elegant, precise, and more succinct than a laborious adverbial phrase. I suspect a number of adverb-despisers don’t realise how heavily they use adverbial phrases, and that sometimes – sometimes – a good adverb can be better. Adverbs have their place in first-person perspectives, for instance, where the narrator’s opinion should colour the reader’s impression.

I see close similarities between what is considered to be “good writing” and what is considered to be “elegant programming” (in my day job). Inexperienced writers, like inexperienced programmers, tend to sometimes follow certain patterns, or do too much or too little of something. Editors or code reviewers pick up on these patterns and, in formulating advice on how to prevent such anti-patterns, sometimes generalise a little too much, or state their advice as though it was doctrine. Such advice has its use, but experienced writers or programmers should take this advice with a hefty pinch of salt. The turkey city lexicon is a prime example. Know the rules, know the conventions, but also be aware of when and how they should be broken (or at least bent).

The comment that scared me into writing this post was one from a writer who said he was new to sharing his writing, hadn’t considered the use of adverbs too much, and now thought he should indeed remove adverbs to make his writing stronger. Please… let’s not create more monkeys who do things just because “that’s the way things are done around here”.

Marking Dialogue

Amos M. Carpenter:

Things every writer should know about punctuation in and around dialogue, explained clearly and with great examples to illustrate each point. Absolute must for anyone interested in perfecting the writer’s craft. Bene scribete vero.

Originally posted on Writin' Fish:

Dialogue Marks

I see a lot of talented writers these days who still have trouble when it comes to the conventions of dialogue tagging and paragraphing in narrative, so I thought I’d do a little guide on how to properly punctuate around those all-important lines of speech.

Let’s take a look at the four main types of dialogue demarcation, and I’ll give a rundown on where each of them belongs.

When to Comma

The ubiquitous comma should be the most familiar device.  Use it with explicit dialogue marking – i.e., to separate speech from a phrase which directly indicates the speech (words like ‘said’, ‘asked’, ‘shouted’, etc.). This is your basic, everyday dialogue construction.  The marking phrase can be either before, after, or in the middle of the dialogue.

“I want a hamburger,” the dinosaur pouted.

Taliana asked her husband, “Can you pass me the salt?”

“I guess chocolate is fine,” Emmy…

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Reading what you wrote

I’m my own worst critic. In the seemingly neverending iterations of writing, reading, and editing, I’ve found that one thing that helps me to see my own writing from a different angle is to read it in a different format than the one in which I wrote it.

Today is my creative day, so I don’t have much time to blog (since I need to keep working on my book – but I promised myself I’d do at least one blog post per day for the first week and then at least once a week after that), but I’ll try and keep this short and sweet.

I like to try and set up my favourite writing software, LibreOffice Writer, so that I can see what I’m writing in a “book-like” format: two columns to a landscape page. Maybe it’s conceit on my part, but I enjoy imagining what it could look like as a finished product.

Book in LibreOffice

A screenshot of how I’ve formatted my book in my favourite writer (the text is deliberately smudged… I’m shy, sue me)

However, every once in a while, I find it extremely helpful to view it in a different format, especially one that I read “real” books in. Printing pages out on paper might work for some; personally, I enjoy reading books on my Android mobile phone during boring train rides to and from work. So I’ll save my book’s chapters as little text files, copy them to my mobile, and use CoolReader to read it like any other book.

This helps me to view my own work from a different perspective, to read it as though I’d never seen it, and therefore to take a step back, see the bigger picture, and be able to critique it without being in writing or editing mode, purely in reading mode.

Reading this way, I often find myself switching to a note-taking app to note down what I need to change, things I wouldn’t have found if I’d just read it in the same format in which I write. When I read a passage and completely forget that I should actually know exactly what’s going to happen next, I know it’s good.

What techniques do you use to help you read/write/edit more effectively? Do you prefer a relatively plain format of your book-in-progress, or do you style it up a certain way? Let me know in the comments.

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