Reunite with old writing

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This is the perfect time of year to revisit and reacquaint yourself with half-baked ideas, undeveloped scenes and unstoried characters you filed away—and nearly forgot.

Do you have a file like that? I usually keep a hard copy of all my manuscripts tucked in file folders in plastic bins. Character descriptions and random scenes are handwritten in notebooks.

I could look at my pile of scripts and notes and see nothing more than failed attempts at plot, writer’s block folly or cringe-worthy rejects. Instead, I imagine it as a treasure trove of second chances—or third …

Time away from something can sometimes give a new perspective. A character might finally spring to life in a new story. A rejected article might be a few tweaks away from acceptance.

Time to dig. Time to make something old new again.

 

The em dash—my favorite

If you were to page through my manuscripts, you’d see it—the em dash. I love that thing. If it were a person, I imagine it as an adoring fan gazing at me with rapt attention—unlike my family members. It’s always at the ready to make sure everyone is listening to the very important thing I’m about to say next.

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It looks like a harmless short line, but in a sentence, it pokes the reader in the ribs and says, “Hey, you, listen up.” The em dash can be used to amplify or explain as if it were a little megaphone in a sentence.

Examples of em dash for emphasis:

  •   She doted on him and loved him—nearly to death.
  •   You could say Gerald was passionate—or obsessed—about his new hobby.

Maybe the em dash appeals to my inner preacher … or nag. Maybe I like it because I’m never sure anyone is listening. Whatever the reason, I like the thought of poking someone with punctuation to say, “Pay attention” or “Check this out” or “Just so you understand” or “Here’s the punchline.”

Are you too in love with your protagonist?

We want to protect those we love. It’s human nature. But it shouldn’t be a writer’s nature—not with our characters. Don’t shield your protagonist in heavy armor. Life sucks sometimes, but it should especially suck for your characters. It’s called drama, action, adventure.

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Do you want the reader to feel your character is in danger? How can that happen if no one is able to get across that mote you built around the fortress? Evil is threatening your protagonist, you write. But how invested can the reader be if that evil can never get close enough for her to feel his hot breath against her cheek, or hear his raspy whisper in her ear, or grapple with evil’s grip around her throat?

You can rescue her, of course, in the nick of time. But make it something worth rescuing.

Make your characters real. Stuff some meaty conflict inside them. Yes, good people get tempted—even tempted to surrender to the dark side. Let them go. To err is human. To mess up big time is great reading.

Even in children’s books, any excruciating experiences—humiliation, rejection, pain, loss—make the victory at the end much more satisfying.

Highlight the Senses in Your Writing

Long before those adult coloring books became a fad, I loved to color. Whenever my kids pulled out the crayons, I found myself doodling or filling in a page even after they moved on to the Legos.

There’s something soothing and satisfying in the rainbow look and waxy smell of a newly opened box of pristine crayons. Highlighters get to me, too, with their soft neon colors gliding across a smooth page.

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I’m not an artist. I do not paint. I wish I could, so maybe that’s why I welcomed the suggestion to highlight all the senses I could find in my novel. Will the reader taste, touch, see, smell, hear my story? The highlighters are lined up—pink, orange, yellow, green, and blue—each with an assigned sense. I want my pages to pop with the same inviting rainbow as a box of crayons or a package of highlighters.

Color me cautious

Could there be too much of a good thing? I think so. Descriptions draw the reader into the story. But they can stop the action and, well, get kind of boring if they go on too long. I can hear the reader now: “Yes, yes, yes—the trees, the bees, the wind—blah, blah, blah. What’s happening with what’s-her-face and what’s-his-name? Get on with it, already.”

So, a little pink here, a little blue and yellow there, it goes a long way. By appealing to a reader’s senses, hopefully, she’ll get that same pleasure that comes with opening a new box of crayons.

A tortoise in the writing race

So, how’s it going? National Novel Writing Month, that is. This would be the almost halfway point in your quest to hammer out 50,000 words on your novel. If you’re like many writers, that bright, shiny goal might be looking duller by the day.

Go ahead and curse NaNo if you wish. I will not judge you. But don’t stop writing.

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I always fancied myself as the tortoise—not the hare—in the writing race. My eyes are fixed on the goal. How fast I get there is not my main concern. Getting there is.

So, if you ruminate over a particular word, or rewrite a scene you labored over last week, or feel compelled to pause to research a detail, that’s okay. The clock may be running out on that NaNo-word-count-thingy, but don’t despair. It’s all about writing anyway.

Whether or not you get those 50,000 words, you are going to wake up December 1st and still write … right? So press on. Write.

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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