Sunday, 29 September 2013

Comma Splice: A Spaghetti Western

A sentence is only big enough for the one sentence...

When two clauses can be written as two different sentences and you’ve used a comma instead of full stop, there's a 90% chance you've made an error. Whether it’s in dialogue or not is irrelevant.

I ate an orange, it was nice.

This is no good, my friend – no good at all. There are two complete clauses. They may feel somewhat linked but that doesn't mean it is okay to splice them together with a comma. The fix is so simple too:

I ate an orange. It was nice.

That’s usually the intended structure, but it’s not the only way you can fix it. Take a look at this fancy range of comma splice fixes I have to offer you today:

* Use a semicolon instead. Only do this when there's an implied link between the two sentences.

* Why not throw in a coordinating conjunction? These short and simple words can link your independent clauses together, keeping your comma intact (it will still need the comma). Examples are for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so.

*Reword the sentence so that the second clause is incomplete. Then it has to rely on that previous clause to make sense. Shuffle the order around and jiggle a few of the words.

*Turn the second verb into an ‘ing’. ‘I ran down the stairs, I brushed my hair’ turns into ‘I ran down the stairs, brushing my hair’.

*Condense the ideas into one so you’d get ‘I ate a nice orange’.

Okay. I'll admit: my ideas are running thin and my title is very tenuously linked, so I’ll stop there. Some of these suggestions change the specifics of what’s happening, so make sure you’re still conveying what you originally wanted to convey.

I’m open to more suggestions if anyone has any. For now, just don’t join two complete clauses using only a comma. Just don’t.


Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Opening Chapter: Quiz and Contest

The opening chapter is pivotal. It needs to draw in an intended audience – it needs flare and promise of things to come, with writing that earns the reader’s trust, luring them into the next chapter. 

I’ve made a quick quiz to test whether your opening has what it takes. You don’t need all of these things for a good chapter. Hell, I bet there are a few I’ve forgotten too!

Answer each of the following using evidence from your opening. If you can’t, then maybe you need to spice up the chapter.

1) Is your opening line unique, scene setting, or hooking?
2) What makes your character unique?
3) Pick out your best line of description.
4) Pick out your quirkiest line.
5) Is the genre and sub-genres obvious?
6) Is it clean from silly mistakes – have you read through more than 10 times?

7) Does it end on a cliff-hanger?
8) What makes it different from other novels in that genre?

9) Does it start close to the action?
10) Are you happy with it? Or is there something you’re planning on improving?


Post 5 or more of your answers below and a link to your story for a chance to be featured! If your opening sounds good, I’ll check it out and tell others about it too.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Britain Vs America: Round 1

Despite basically sharing a language, there are many differences British English and American English. Some of these differences are stealthy like little grammatical ninjas. The only reason I'm aware of some of them is because they've been pointed out as mistakes when I've been certain they’re not. Turns out we’re both sorta right.

It’s good to be aware of these things when critiquing work or when reading what critics have to say about your writing. So here’s yet another list. I hope it helps!

#1 : Mr and Mrs.


British preference is to leave out the full stop after abbreviation of titles where as American preference is to keep them in. Very simple.

But wait - the plot thickens. If the abbreviation ends with the different letter as the full word, a full stop is preferred. Take professor and prof. as an example. That’s why it may feel like there’s a pick and choose situation going on, although I can assure you there isn’t. It all makes perfect sense. It does. ;)

#2: s and z


I thought most writers were aware, but I’ve still had critics tell me realise, harmonise, organise, summarise etc. are errors. They’re not. American English opts for Z where Britain prefers ‘s’. There are loads of alternate spellings, such as for ‘color/colour’ and ‘honor/honour’. Before correcting typos, make sure it’s not just a cultural difference.

#3: Ellipsis – three dots or four?


Ellipsis are used to indicate that part of a sentence has been omitted. This is why I’m vouching for the British preference of only using 3 dots in a row. Ever.

Sometime in American usage, four full stops are used to mark that the ellipsis comes at the end of a sentence. I find this preference a little silly – you’ve used punctuation to indicate how the sentence is incomplete and then used a full stop to say it is complete. Sounds contradictory to me.

I’ll take a deep breath and hum ‘preference’ for that one...

#4: Sneaked and snuck


‘Sneaked’ sounds better to me whereas ‘snuck’ may sound better to any Americans out there. Again, no need to draw out your red pens – it’s a matter of preference.

#5: While and Whilst


Whilst is an older version of the verb ‘while’. Apparently most Americans find ‘whilst’ too old time whereas British writers care a little less. This is the same for ‘among’ and ‘amongst’. Brits don’t care whereas you’d only find it in American writing when an author is trying to give his novel that aged feel.

However, ‘while’ and ‘whilst’ are not always interchangeable (unlike my other example). While can be a verb or a noun. Whilst can only be a verb. ‘For a while’ is the noun form and cannot be written ‘for a whilst’.Remember that, and you’re good to go. Or save a smidgen of brain power and only use ‘while’.


So here are five differences off the top of my head. My preferences are, funnily enough, entirely British. As long as you’re consistent, it really doesn’t matter which you use.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Perfectly Imperfect Dialogue

I almost don’t want to talk about intentional mistakes because the whole area is a gigantic grey blob. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. You have to be careful and use your own discretion, but here’s one way I feel it does work:

“Me and Kelsey...”

I’ve had this phrasing in my novel for a while, but it’s finally been pointed out by a critic. I expected it to raise alarm bells for many more writers than it has because the critic was right. It isn’t grammatically correct...

It is a deliberate mistake. In a normal conversation with my friends, I don’t think I’ve ever actually said ‘Kelsey and I...’ because it sounds too posh – and I’m from Oxford! Instead I worded it how I felt my character would have said the phrase in that situation.

Conversations are imperfect, filled with false starts, grammatical errors, and ambiguous phrases which are nevertheless understood perfectly fine at the time. If you write dialogue the way you actually speak, it would be very confusing to read. The idea is to capture that imperfect feel whilst still making sense, keeping in mind the way your character talks and thinks.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Featured: Curious by Missbaaria

This is the first of what I hope to be a regular feature to support those hoping to get published some day. Writing sites only support those who are popular and agents accept those lucky few. But what about those who write amazing stories and just haven’t been found or don’t have the time to promote themselves? Here I’ll feature those special stories I felt deserve more attention.

By Misbaaria

Title: Curious
Username: Missbaaria
Site: Wattpad

Simon is a happily miserable person, afraid of change and carrying a lot of baggage. When a pair of golden door in the middle of a road threaten his sanity, Simon must decide whether to leave them be or let his curiosity get the better of him.

A real strength of this novel is Simon. His grumpiness is quirky, and he sees the world in a very different light to most people. Many writers tend to write themselves into the novel and the character falls flat, but I can tell that Simon has had both time and thought put into his personality and back story. His weaknesses are a real strength for this novel.

The writing is exceptionally neat. Typos are at a minimum and the writing is smooth. It’s written with a unique style which is helped by Simon’s own individuality. The plot is gradual, not particularly fast but far from slow, which altogether builds a strong atmosphere for the novel that pulled me in from the start.

What I respect the most is the writer herself. Misbaaria works hard on every chapter, making sure it’s as close to perfect as possible before posting it online. It makes critiquing a lot easier as I get to focus on the more in-depth ideas rather than correcting typos and awkward wording. This is definitely a book that will be on my shelf as soon as it reaches the bookshops!

So if you’re looking for another teen novel with a love triangle and cartoon-like jerks, don’t read this. But if you want something intelligent and unusual, then give it a read. Go on. =]


Any suggestions for my next featured novel-in-progress? Please post below and I’ll check it out.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Tips for Critics

Critiquing is a big part of writing sites. A good way to lure people into your novel is to offer a read in return, and including a few notes of improvement can encourage others to do the same for you. Usually your instincts provide very helpful advice, but we’ve all read reviews that have made us roll our eyes rather than change our ways. Here are a few things I keep in mind when reviewing, so maybe you’ll find them useful too.

Tip#1

If you’re unsure, google it. If you’re pretty sure, google it.

There’s nothing worse that offering bad advice based on your own mistakes. Actually there is: finding out a week later when another critic corrects you. If you’re unsure, it’s best to either admit you’re uncertain or look it up – learn for next time so that your advice is the one to trust.

Tip#2

Think of it as an opportunity to learn.

We often don’t realise our blind spots until it comes to critiquing others. Don’t think of it as a chore or something that means you’ll get fewer reads, think of it as a way of practicing before editing your own work.

Tip#3

Work out why you don’t like something they’ve done.

‘That bit could be better’ isn’t really helpful. The writer will most likely ignore you because they don’t know what to do with that comment. If you try to point out exactly what it wrong with the sentence (e.g. repetition of the word ‘caramel’ sounds funny) then not only are you more helpful, but it could help you become more aware of your own errors. 
 

Tip#4

Respect what the writer is trying to achieve.

Maybe that simile sounds stupid to you, but then if it sounds terrible, why would they do it? It’s often because they’re focusing on something else. A simile about being as strong as a tiger might sound cliché, but maybe it’s because they’re trying to build up the image of being a jungle warrior. Instead of telling them to delete the line, you may decide to tell them to cater for the specific reason you didn’t like it and still achieve the intended effect. If a writer feels you understand their writing, they’re more likely to listen and respect you.

Tip#5

Critique at their level.

If the writer is unable to use basic punctuation, then it’s probably better not to lecture them about character development. The idea isn’t to rip someone’s work apart if they don’t have the tools to glue it back together. This leads well into my next point:

Tip#6

Dilute your evilness with a few niceties.

Lots of critics boast about being ‘harsh’, which I don’t agree with at all. Don’t be harsh; be fair. It’s very easy to pick out flaws if you’re looking for them (even in published books). Instead, inspire them to write by picking out a few strengths too. After all, your intentions should never be to beat their spirit to the ground, even if they’ve just done that to you.


Hope these are helpful in some way. Happy critiquing!

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Modifiers: Be Specific

This is part two of my 'modifying modifier usage' posts, although I decided against calling it that on the basis that I can’t say it out loud. 
I’ll get straight to the point: it is better to use specific nouns and verbs than to stuff your sentence full of modifiers. If taking away every adverb and adjective in your writing leaves you with a bland story, then you’re doing it wrong.

Pick interesting seed words instead. Otherwise it’s like putting lipstick on a very bland looking pig.

Here are some common examples:

Runs slowly --> Jogs

Said quietly --> Whispered, muttered, murmured

Frowned aggressively --> Growled, glared, glowered, scowled

Often, reducing usage of modifiers can make a sentence feel stronger. Take taglines for example. Sometimes just ‘said’ can feel more apt, especially if you've used a lot of description in other taglines or you don’t particularly need to accentuate the way that bit’s spoken.

Basically, it’s better to think about what you’re doing and how each word affects the piece as a whole, rather than getting in the mindset of ‘this sounds good - I'll do it more’. Often, copious amounts of modifiers sound like the writer is trying too hard and slows the pace in a way that is only recognisable after they've been removed. It’s something that needs to be played around with a fair bit to realise the effect.

Don’t get me wrong, modifiers have their uses. They’re just not an every-other-word type of technique.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Modifiers: Emphasis

Essentially, modifiers are adjectives and adverbs. They are words or phrases that change the meaning of a noun or verb. So rule 1: If the modifier doesn't modifier anything, take it out. 

I'll talk more about that in a later post (these little tykes are more complicated than one post could explain). Right now, I want to talk about using them to put emphasis on a particular point.

Every so often I review a story jammed packed with the little buggers, and sometimes it’s hard to explain why less is more. Surely more are better because they allow more imagery and detail! Well, not exactly. Using too many can cause the reader to take less away from the sentence than intended.

The idea is to be selective. Be aware that using modifiers can bring extra emphasis to a particular feature, but know that this power has a limited usage. Here’s an example:


The old gates creaked loudly as the chubby man walked through quickly. – No emphasis.

The old gates creaked as the man walked through. – Emphasis on the gates being old.

The gates creaked as the chubby man walked through. – Emphasis on the man being chubby.


As you can see, you’re more likely to blame the gates for the creak in the second sentence, where as you’d blame the man in the third. However, sentence one has far more detail than in necessary and its emphasis is diluted across the whole sentence. Basically, it’s harder to work out who is to blame. Should we purchase a new gate or should the man exercise more? No one knows (it’s irrelevant that no one cares...).

More on these later.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Oxford Comma: The 'Optional' One

I’m fond of this piece of punctuation despite it being entirely optional. It takes the name of my hometown, and likeness breeds attraction and all. Not that I’m attracted to a comma... 

Anyway, the Oxford comma is placed before the ‘and’ which introduces the last item of a list. In the following example, I’ve placed it in brackets:

I saw a squirrel, a penguin[,] and a camel in the zoo.

As you can see, the comma doesn’t make much of a difference to the example above. The reason I still opt in isn’t because of sentences like that. The Oxford comma is useful when the list is a little more complicated because it groups together the second to last item and separates it from the last. If you still use it when it’s not necessary, I like to think it still has a subconscious consistency effect on readers. It feels neater too, but then we know I’m biased.

Take a look at this example too:

I saw a squirrel with a nut, a penguin and an iceberg, and a camel in the zoo.

The comma separates the penguin and it’s iceberg from the camel, suggesting they’re in different areas of this zoo. Without it, the list falls apart. Alternatively, you may want to use a colon and semicolon combination or even writing it in a way that flows better. That’s ok too, but if your heart is set on a list structure which only has three items, then you’d probably be better off using my little friend here.


So what do you think? Is it worth including, or is it just an old rule that can be ignored?

And finally, some relevant Vampire weekend: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P_i1xk07o4g

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Let the Queries Commence

After years of working on my urban fantasy novel, I’ve finally started the querying process. It's already had some mini success: an agent has requested a partial! I can’t be happier at the moment. If the agent doesn’t feel I can write a good book, well, at least they thought I could write a good query.

I'll post up more about the novel soon. Here's the short pitch and a link to chapter 1 is below. Go on, give it a read. =P


ASHES TO EMBERS

As the power struggle between those with magic intensifies, an unsettling vision is uncovered by three young friends – good can never win, as it must become evil to do so.

With Demons growing stronger, Feya and Kelsey train to harness their magic alongside their powerless friend Tristan, knowing that the harsh times will either kill them or turn them evil. Options are scarce until an exiled rogue, remembered for her inexplicable attack on Tristan, returns with a risky proposition: to become allies with a Demon, abandon their friends, and rip magic from the world. 


Anyone want to read Chapter 1: The End of the Road.

Friday, 6 September 2013

The Supposedly Elusive Semicolon

If you’ve got more than five semicolons in your opening chapter, I can guarantee you are using them wrong. No need to worry though. Delete all of them. Yes, all. Then put back in the four or five that were actually needed (and that’s per book, not chapter).

Here’s a quick test for you. Do you know which of these needs a semicolon?
1) I ran to the door; keys in my hand.
2) I ran to the door; keys jingling as I went.
3) I ran to the door; I didn’t want anyone else to answer it.
4) I ran to the door; I answered it.

Sentences 1 and 2 should have commas instead. Semicolons are used to join two completed sentences. If either of your sentences can’t stand alone as an independent sentence, then you shouldn’t use a semicolon.

Sentence 4 is wrong for an entirely different reason. Semicolons can make a writer feel powerful. We think we’re being exciting and dramatic; readers think we’re pretentious. If nothing is implied, then nothing is added by having the punctuation there.

Once using them correctly, try not to use them at all. Any more than four per chapter stands out like a coke bottle on a lemonade shelf. The only time you should use one is when removing it changes the meaning of the sentence.

The dog ran. He was hungry. // The dog ran; he was hungry.

The first doesn’t necessarily imply that the reason the dog ran was due to his hunger. Well it does a little bit because of the proximity, but using a semicolon gets rid of any uncertainty you may hold about the dog’s motives. The second uses a structure that implies more of a link. The second means the dog ran because he was hungry, and it’s written in a quick, straightforward way.

4) I ran to the door; I answered it.

You probably shouldn’t use a semicolon here as there’s nothing extra being implied.

You might throw one in to sound more dramatic, but it’s a bit like someone going ‘Dun Dun DUHHHHHN!’ behind you as you read. It’s melodramatic, unnecessary – tempting – but shows that you don’t really understand what the punctuation is for.

Punctuation isn’t a device for when you want to sound dramatic. Often a dramatic line will have so much weight that punctuation only softens it.

So if you're a semicolon lover, try to avoid using too many. The only time you should use them is when the sentence corners you and puts a gun to your head – metaphorically of course.

Cheers for reading!

Me!


Here are 10 random facts about me. I like to keep things quirky. 

1) I'm a blue sash at Kung Fu.

2) Light makes me sneeze. Apparently it's called a photoptarmosis.

3) I've been writing Ashes to Embers on and off for 5 years, starting when I was 16. I wrote Shadow Runner in-between and hope to see both novels published someday.

4) Sometimes I sleep with my eyes open. I've seen pictures... yes, it's creepy.

5) I sent my first novel off to literary agents when I was 14. It was a bit ambitious, I know, but I managed a partial and it taught me a lot about the publishing process.

6) I study pscyhology at univeristy (but no I can't read your mind. Yes, it's a real science.)

7) I have a poem called Corrupt published by Frontenac Publishers after winning a Wattpad contest.

8) I go by the name dreamybanana and scookie on writing sites.

9) I'm teaching myself guitar... badly (sorry, neighbours!).

10) My lovely boyfriend is also called Sam.

First Blood...

I’m an unpublished author, fighting the slushpile. I hope to share with you guys both my experiences at trying to get published and the writing nuggets I’ve pick up through reviewing.

Here’s what the blog will hopefully include:

1) I spend a lot of time critiquing chapters and a lot of time repeating myself. I hope to post weekly tips and articles with advice based on those reviews.

2) To tell you lovely people about my manuscript: ASHES TO EMBERS. It’s an urban fantasy for young adults with a hint of romance. I’m at the stage of querying, so I’ll be posting updates on that.

3) To offer critiquing tips to those just starting out. Reviewing other manuscripts is a big part of joining a writing community but it doesn’t need to be thought of as giving and it should contain more than just ‘I love it’.

4) Finally, I have a freebie (sorta) in the form of a chapter by chapter editing service. Basically, I enjoy working with writing to help them develop their stories, so instead of posting ‘free reads’ on a writing forum, I thought I’d make it more official. Pop to my website for more details and a contact form (www.samanthacook.baxx.net). I’ll be posting about it later and also info about the awesome unpublished books I’m reading.

Cheers for reading. Comments are welcome and followers are adored. =]