Single quotation marks (why they’re single and should be lonely)

Fiction writers: Put your hands up and move away from those single quotation marks.

Sometimes I see writers use single quotation marks around a word to show irony, to show the word is a nickname, or to show it’s a weird or unfamiliar term. By American punctuation standards, that’s downright unpatriotic.

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Use double quotation marks instead:

  • Our “conversation” was Lucy scolding me nonstop for five minutes.
  • I met Harry “Big Head” Handley when he sat in front of me in English class.
  • My teacher referred to my fidgeting as “antsy-pantsy-wiggle-isms.” He would often interrupt class to say, “Mary, cease and desist with your antsy-pantsy-wiggle-isms.” (Note: Once you set off a weird word with quotation marks, you don’t have to do it again.)

Also:

  • When you write about the word as the word itself: I just learned what “vituperate” means. (You can also choose to italicize the word.)

When to use single quotation marks:

  • If you’re writing a quote within a quote: Larry said, “She was furious. She told me, ‘Larry, you’re a low-down, stinking, rotting skunk.’ ” (Note: Look where the period is located. The period always goes within the first quotation mark—unless you’re British. American writing style differs from British writing in several ways, including the use of single and double quotation marks.)
  • Or if there’s a quote within a newspaper or magazine headline: President vetoes ‘idiotic bill’

For fiction writing, that’s pretty much all you need to know about single quotation marks. Used correctly, you might see fewer of them on your pages.

For fresh eyes on your manuscript, visit I Spy Edits.

NaNoWriMo: Bend the rules

Get on your mark. Get set. Write.

Do you hear it? The clock is ticking, and writers everywhere are tapping out the beginnings of what should be 50,000 words by the end of National Novel Writing Month.

Even if you’re not writing a novel, use NaNo as a motivational exercise to tackle your personal writing goals.

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Fifty-thousand words in the month of November may be an admirable goal for some, but maybe not for you. Maybe you want to get into the habit of writing consistently every day, or Monday through Friday, or maybe that one night of the week you have free. Then put that goal into your Google calendar and do it. Set your alarm on your phone and then write nonstop for an hour, or two, or however long you can. Make it about quality time, not word count.

Yes, people all over the world are madly tapping out words for NaNo, and (Yay!) so are you. But make it about you and your goals.

Visit I Spy Edits for copy editing services.

Writing dialogue: Who said what?

Mary, Jack, and Andy sat on a bench.

“What time is it?” asked Mary.

“Who cares?” said Jack.

“Well, I do,” said Andy.

“Me, too.”

“I don’t know what time it is.”

“But you’ve got a watch on.”

“Yeah, look at your watch.”

“My watch doesn’t work.”

Mary and Andy look at the watch on Jack’s wrist.

“Oh, wait. It does work.”

“Let me see. It’s 3:23.”

Who said what?

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I don’t know. I got lost after “I don’t know what time it is.” Maybe some readers could figure it out by going back and reading it a few times, but … no writer wants that.

Attributes are simple little things that writers forget sometimes. We forget that readers cannot see inside our heads. Everything may be clear to us but not for the reader.

He said, she said—maybe you think those attributes look kind of bored, sitting there on the page. Then maybe you need to replace those attributes with some character expressions and action:

Andy looked at Jack and rolled his eyes. “But you’ve got a watch on.”

Maybe you want to give the dialogue that rapid-fire feel, and you think the attributes slow things down. Truth is, they’re barely noticed. They’re little markers that keep the reader on track and the dialogue sorted out—kind of like the center line on a long highway.

Can you leave an attribute off a sentence? Sure, but only if it’s obvious who is speaking.

Also, remember to give each speaker his or her own paragraph.

To give your manuscript a polish, check out I Spy Edits.

Rescue a Comma Today

Comma splices—sad. How did that poor comma get there between two independent clauses? What kind of person expects that wispy curlicue to do the heavy lifting of a period or semicolon?

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What’s a comma splice?

Let me give you some examples. You read, and I’ll cower in the corner until I think you’re done. Here goes:

  • Lucy is boring, she doesn’t know when to shut up.
  • Ed is addicted to chocolate, he eats it all day.
  • Walking outside is healthy, it relieves stress, too.

Comma splices may be as rare as a Yeti sighting, but they’re out there. Believe me. There are also some people who don’t think it’s a big deal. It’s true. There are those who insist if the independent clauses are short and are closely connected, go ahead and use a comma. They say it’s no big whoop.

I beg to differ. That’s how it starts, people. It’s a slippery slope. Can’t you see? Who decides what’s “short,” huh? Who decides what’s “closely connected”—some bleary-eyed writer at the keyboard with one, two, three too many martinis? That guy? Huh?

If you are overwhelmed with the temptation to put a comma between two independent clauses, try using a semicolon. You’ll feel better, and so will I.

If you think you may have commas in need of rescuing, visit I Spy Edits.

Read any funny books lately?

“How long is this dystopian ride going to last?” I asked.

“Oh, don’t even say the word dystopian. That is so over,” the young, bright-eyed literary agent told me. “What’s happening now is gritty realism.”

So, imaginary-futuristic-depressing gave way to contemporary-depressing in middle grade children’s books? Sigh.

“What about humor?”

“Weeell.” She scrunched up her nose and pulled her mouth into a tight line. “Humor is a hard sell,” she said. “It’s so subjective.”

But depressing is not. Got it.

Don’t get me wrong. I got into The Hunger Games as much as anyone. And I know readers—teenagers especially—feed off any devastating and gripping rollercoaster of a read. But do people want to read that all the time?

I like humor. Unfortunately, I don’t see enough of it on the bookshelves—for middle grade, young adults, and beyond.

Remember when Oprah had her TV book club? I would look for that little Oprah seal on a paperback and buy it. However, I bailed out early. My God, no wonder suburban housewives drink. Isn’t real life rocky enough without a constant consumption of depressing books?

Not much has changed since my conversation with the agent more than a year ago or even when Oprah first started her book club way back when. Are writers sad and angsty and tragic in general? Or is all that stuff just natural to write about?

I know I might be alone out here in La-La-Happy-Land, but … come on! Where’s your sense of humor, publishers? Writers? Help a reader out.

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Writers: Beware of sound-alike words

Do you know the difference between the words stationary and stationery?

When I edited articles for a parenting magazine, we got a charming piece about thank-you notes and how kids can create their own stationery. Charming. Except the writer kept using the word stationary, meaning not moving. Apparently, she didn’t catch the difference between stationary and stationery—and neither did her spell-check.

Homophones, words that sound alike but are spelled differently, can be a pain (as opposed to a pane). Examples:

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principle – principal

capitol – capital

cite – site

discreet – discrete

enumerate – innumerate

lightening – lightning

canvas – canvass

elicit – illicit

fare – fair

flair – flare

foreword – forward

peek – peak – pique

 Also:

  1. Did she arrive in the nick of time or the knick of time?
  2. He got his just deserts or his just desserts?
  3. I waited with bated breath or baited breath?
  4. The tortoise had free rein of the house or free reign of the house?
  5. Did he wreak havoc or reek havoc?

Answers:

  1. nick
  2. deserts (Surprise!)
  3. bated
  4. rein (I’m not lying.)
  5. wreak

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So, let’s be careful out there. Give your words a double take.

The misuse and abuse of ’s

I interrupt your regularly scheduled program to bring you this editing reminder: Stop writing it’s when you should be writing its.

It’s is a contraction for it is or it has. Forever and ever. Amen.

So, you would write: The scruffy dog scratched at its fur. No apostrophe. An s would mean: The scruffy dog scratched at it is fur. Makes no sense.

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When to blow off the ’s

Plurals seem to cause the greatest misuse of ’s. According to The Chicago Manual of Style, these plurals should be written with no apostrophe:

  • the three Rs
  • the 1990s
  • IRAs
  • URLs
  • BSs, MAs, PhDs
  • The McAdams (or any family name on your holiday cards or invitation list)
  • As for her grades, she got three As, two Bs, and one C. (Grades are not italicized.)
  • ifs and buts
  • dos and don’ts
  • threes and fours
  • thank-yous
  • maybes
  • yeses and nos

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  • x’s and y’s and all other lowercase letters (Note: Single letters that represent themselves are usually italicized. The ’s is not. However, italics is not used in these two common expressions: Mind your p’s and q’s. Make sure you dot the i’s and cross the t’s.)

Get it? Good. Write on.

Visit I Spy Edits for copy editing services.

The semicolon—pretentious punctuation?

I don’t know why, but every time I see a semicolon while reading fiction, I get the same reaction:  “Why, you pretentious little piece of punctuation, who do you think you are? You’re just a snobby little period dressed in your fancy, schmancy, curly, long dress.”

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Weird, huh? I know it’s a kooky hang-up. The only time I should get strange about the use of a semicolon is when it’s misused or abused.

When to use a semicolon

  • Commas are used to set off a series of items or phrases in a sentence. But when those items or phrases include commas, you need to use a semicolon for clarity.

Examples:

I have lived in Goolagong, Utah; Howsit, Texas; and Upyonder, Montana.

The man was an intense, meticulous, and obsessive house cleaner; a tireless, hardworking, and loyal employee; and an all-around nice guy.

  • Semicolons are used to join two independent clauses that are closely connected.

Examples:

Jewelry makes a nice gift; power tools are better.

Chocolate is not a dessert; it’s a major food group.

I couldn’t look at her; she cracked me up.

  • Semicolons are also used when two independent clauses are joined by a conjunctive adverb:

Examples:

The young man was brilliant; however, he was difficult and unreliable.

They all showed up to my party; furthermore, they brought gifts.

Truth be told, the semicolon is a useful tool. Of course, I have used it when writing a series of items that included commas. That’s unavoidable. The other times …

I admit I have been tempted to box away a period or two and try on a semicolon—just to see how I look in it. But it seems so Dom Pérignon and caviar. I’m a beer-and-pretzel kind of writer, after all. I don’t mean Stella Artois, either. I mean the whatever’s-cheapest-and-on-tap kind.

So, yeah. I’m sticking with the tried and true, plain, old period. I’ll leave that fancy period-in-a-dress to the more erudite and sophisticated writers.

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Tips to keep you writing

Many have the notion that writing is this airy fairy, artsy fartsy pursuit. Creativity can only come if you’re feeling inspired. You need that spark that unleashes your imagination. You need that idea to pop up and grab you. You need your muse to lift you to that lofty realm of creative consciousness. You need your coffee.

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Baloney. Well, maybe you need your coffee. But you can’t wait for that warm, fuzzy writing feeling to overwhelm you. Sometimes it doesn’t happen—for a long time.

Just write. Write now.

Set goals

  • Decide who and what

Maybe you don’t know what to write about it, but you can decide now who you want to write for: children’s magazines, a hobby magazine, a contest, or a traditional book publisher.

From there, whittle it down: an article on how to pick a family pet, a children’s nonfiction picture book on worm farming, a murder mystery, a memoir  …

Take a gander at the library and bookstore shelves. Jot down ideas.

Go to book or magazine publishers’ websites. Find their writers guidelines and see what they want.

  • Schedule time

It’s up to you to decide how much time you can or need to devote to your writing. But devote, you must—even if it is one evening a week, or two hours on Sunday, or 20 minutes a day. Schedule the time in your calendar.

  • Set deadlines

Fill your calendar with deadlines: The third week of next month, I will have my children’s story finished and ready to submit. Three months from today, I will have the first three chapters of my novel written.

Make a chore chart, if you need to: start outline on YA novel, edit nature article, rewrite ending of short fiction story. Check off each goal and add to the chart.

Also, make a chart to keep track of submissions to magazines, publishers, and agents. Include date of submission, response (if ever) date, published or no, payment info.

Go out to write

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  • Treat writing like a job

Get up, get dressed, and drive or walk yourself to your writing job—at a coffee shop, the library, at a picnic table in the park.

While writing in your jammies is a definite perk, sometimes it’s easy to get distracted at home. When you’re grappling with the first seeds of a story, it’s too tempting to find other ways to be “more productive.” There’s always something to do around the house, after all

This was my problem. I had only the vaguest idea for a story, and I couldn’t move forward. So, I found a local coffee shop filled with people tapping away on their laptops. It worked. I couldn’t just sit there and stare into space—I had to do something. I started writing on the topic and didn’t stop until I had a story.

  • Write with writers

Plan to meet often and promise to keep chatting to a minimum. Set the timer on your phone to sit and write and nothing else.

  • Invest in writing

Classes, workshops, seminars, retreats—they all have something in common: They force you to write.

When I needed to exercise, but wasn’t making time to do it, I signed up for a class. Paying for the time motivated me to attend. Who wants to waste money?

Be accountable

  • Critique group

Once or twice a month, pages are due—online or in person. My writers group gives me plenty to write about each month—or should I say rewrite?

  • Writing partners

Besides the critique group, I meet with a writing partner once a month. We share what we’ve written, what we’ve submitted, talk about writing goals, and give a few words of encouragement.

  • Don’t be perfect

Sometimes writing seems easy—the idea’s there, the words are flowing, the page on the screen is filling up. But sometimes, it’s not. Write anyway. Write anything.

Pick someone at that coffee shop. Write a description. Imagine a personality, a life. Write. It doesn’t matter if it’s good. It doesn’t matter if you’ll ever use it. It will get you writing. And maybe that’s the simple goal you need right now.

Writers: What’s your favorite word?

I bet I could guess your favorite word. I’m not psychic, but if you’re like many writers, I could figure it out.

When I combed through my first manuscript looking for my most-used word, it became clear after just a few pages. And there it is. Did you see that cute hunky nugget? Just.

Oh just, how do I love thee? Let me count the times I write thy name.

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If just were a man, I’d cook him dinner, text him 20 times a day, stalk him, stand outside his apartment, and beg him to let me have his baby. That’s how many times I write just in my stories.

I read a novel—the first in a series—by a writer who had her work turned into a cable movie series.

The story was intriguing, but this word kept popping up: sardonically. After one, two, three times, I didn’t pay much attention. But then it kept jumping up and poking me in the eye. Halfway through the book, I yelled “For the love of God, get a thesaurus!” Or delete a few. Or rewrite to show, not tell.

But I kept reading. It was an interesting story … and the author is a bajillionaire, after all. And I am, well, not.

Maybe you don’t care if you use the same word over and over. Maybe you have such a compelling story, you think it doesn’t matter. But I implore you, if you have any compassion at all, or feel any kinship with readers, for the love of all things biblio- and bookish, please get a thesaurus.

Or take your favorite word and get a room.

 

For a closer look at your manuscript, visit I Spy Edits