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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » First 13, and novels

   
Author Topic: First 13, and novels
wbriggs
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When I'm looking at the first 13 of a novel, what I'm checking for is whether the writing is good, especially, whether I follow what's happening. I'm not looking for a hook (other than that I'm not bored), or for getting to the action. We can meander a while, as long as it seems to be going somewhere.

This isn't just on Hatrack, but also in the bookstore.

What do you look for? The same?


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Matt Lust
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I don't belive novels have first 13 "lines."

For me its about 13-15 minutes. Which equals about 35-40 pages.


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TruHero
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Matt, I believe that too! Every book I have is missing the first 13 lines! I think it is what comes just before the story starts. Although until now, I never had it confirmed. I thought I was the only one who believed in that conspiracy, Thanks!
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Shendülféa
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I must say I do rather enjoy clever first lines that make me think, "What the...? What's this all about?" But it is not necessarily a requirement. If the first thirteen don't hook me right off, that's okay. I keep reading for a few pages and then I decide whether or not I like the book. I also often flip through to the middle and skim (I don't care if I spoil anything) to see if the quality of writing remains as good as it did at the beginning or if it has deteriorated. I don't generally like first thirteens that are painfully obvious hooks. This usually includes starting off a story in medias res, which is fine some of the time, but when it's thrown in there in a blatant attempt to start off the story with some great hook, then it gets annoying.

I'm all about wordsmithing. Can the author manipulate words in an interesting way or come up with new metaphors and phrases that are clever and original? That's usually what I look for--and that's generally how I write as well. I suppose, then, that what I really look for when I pick up a new book is how similar the author's writing is to mine.

[This message has been edited by Shendülféa (edited March 16, 2006).]


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hoptoad
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People occasionally ppost first 13 of a novel in F&F and get short shrift.

Its kinda dumb to do it to the writer but it happens all the time.

Its happened to me and a few others I can think of.

Better to leave F&F for short stories, maybe its just not the right sort of place for novels.

Edit: clarification

[This message has been edited by hoptoad (edited March 16, 2006).]


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rcorporon
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hot, I've lamented this fact for a while now, and have stopped using F&F here altogether.

For a novel, the first 13 is useless. Look at the first 13 lines of nearly any novel, and you'd be hard pressed to find a "hook" of any kind.

I have found Critters to be a much better place for feedback on my writing, as they'll allow the critters to see the ENTIRE story before passing judgement.

I find this to be much more helpful than having 15 people tell me "There isn't enough information here."


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thayerds
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OK here are a couple of Novels that have great 13 line beginnings, "The Dispossesed" Ursula K. LeGuin, "Norstrailia" Cordwainer Smith. There are a lot more. It is not a hook that is required, it is simply getting the groundwork set. POV, main character, (who is it), and getting a fictional dream started. Notice I did not say get the story started, I didn't say everyting had to be explained. LOTRs begins with Bilbo's 111th birthday party. The infamous ring is not explained until the second chapter. But the first 13 of that long story still work. We see who, what when and where, and a story within the story that serves to introduce the important characters is launched.

By the way, I used to regularly visit Critters. I would pick Hatrack over Critters any day.

Why should I be required to critique a hundred stories before I even have an opportunity of getting mine read?


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Silver3
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I give the novel 2-3 chapters. A hook is nice, but not indispensable. Something happening, however, is a good thing.

But I'm more lenient with novels than with short stories for the reason they're longer. As long as I'd go on reading, I'm fine. You don't have to grab me by the throat (and I'd resent that for a novel).

(edited to correct a sentence that didn't make sense).

[This message has been edited by Silver3 (edited March 16, 2006).]


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Aalanya
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Wow... I completely disagree with a lot of you guys. I can usually tell within the first few paragraphs whether I want to keep reading. I'm more in the camp with wbriggs.

Things I check for:

Technicality. If there is anything technically wrong with the first couple of paragraphs of a book, I put it down right away. I cannot stand to read a whole book full of errors. If someone has asked me to edit their work and I see a lot of errors right away I take a moment to prepare myself because I know it will be a long ride.

Musicality. Now technical problems are a shame, but they can be dealt with in the editing stage. Musicality is a different matter entirely. Again, here is an instance where I'll put down the book right away if it isn't pleasing. Musicality takes a very long time to learn and learn well. It's all about how the words sound on the page and how the sentences bind together. I have at times read chapters of Moby Dick simply because the language is so appealing. Musicality can be learned. But if you don't got it, your writing is going to be painful for me to read.

Quotation. It is possible to start a book with quotation and have a good beginning. But it is also very rare, at least in my opinion. I think there are several reasons for this. First of all, dialogue sets an extremely fast pace. When I first pick up a book, I want to feel like I'm finding my footing before the pace picks up. Second, dialogue often creates unidentified characters. I would personally like to know the characters a bit before they say anything. Third, a lot of people don't write very good dialogue. If they start with dialogue all they are doing is showing the worst side of their writing.

Purpose. If your first few paragraphs are meandering and don't seem to have a point, I'm not likely to keep reading.

Style. There are a hundred ways to have really awful style. If you employ any of them I will not want to read any more.

Clarity. If I don't understand what's going on I may or may not put down the book, depending on how badly I'm confused.

These are just six of the many reasons I stop reading. I admit, I'm hard to please. But from what I hear, so are publishers.


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Susannaj4
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I have found lately, from newly published works especially, that the first few lines are great. Maybe even the first chapter. Then all of the sudden, there are major POV switches--poorly done, and a load of really crappy dialogue.

Now, here when I read the first thirteen, I look for things like 'does it interest me?', 'Does it paint me a picture?'.

I don't care if it tells me the whole entire story. If that were the case, it'd be a poem.


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Silver3
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Aalanya, I consider myself in the same camp as wbriggs.

I think what he wanted to clarify is that although there are biiig turnoffs (those you mention in your post), I don't need a hook as in "something that grabs me by the lapels and makes me *want* to absolutely read the story". The hook, for me, is a short story concept.

There's a whole world of difference between "meandering" and "getting straight to the point".


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Grimslade
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I give a novel about a page to decide whether I'd continue reading. The first 13 is vital to my decision. It shows whether the writer can write. If you can not write thirteen lines, why would I waste time slogging through 350 pages panning for nuggets of good storytelling?
I think people get hung up on the hook. There does not have to be a HOOK (gripping you to the whole book)in the first 13, but there better be something to keep a reader interested in what unfolds on the next page. Every sentence is an opportunity to drive the story on; why waste it?

Grim


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wbriggs
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What Silver3 said.
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pantros
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I read for style, clarity and language.

If I get it, I'll keep reading. If I come across an MC named "Bob the swordwielder" or "Kizymandiamuckusian" or "Anita Blake" I put the book down and kick it under the shelf, saving the rest of humanity.


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Aalanya
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Sorry, I guess I misunderstood.

But I will say that once a book has grabbed me, I generally read it through until the end. I hate to leave a story hanging. There are certainly exceptions, but in general the first few paragraphs mean all or nothing.


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Christine
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quote:
Better to leave F&F for short stories, maybe its just not the right sort of place for novels.


I completlely disagree. Regardless of what I look for in bookstores (which usually has a lot more to do with the bookjacket than the first couple of paragraphs) what I look for to critique is basic competence. I decided a long time ago not to critique anything that wasn't at least somewhat competent in its writing because it's a waste of time for me to go over grammar, spelling, and basic phrasing with people who can't pull that sort of thing together.


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luapc
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From what I've read, book publishers will ask for the first couple of chapters of a novel, thoug I haven't submitted any novels yet. I imagine that gives them a good idea of the talent behind the writing and the quality of the story. If the editor likes what is presented, then they will want more. That being the case, if you are talking about getting published, I would say that an editor is likely to give a novel at least a couple of chapters, assuming the writing is good, and the story is engaging.

I don't think the first 13 has to be a grabber for a novel, but it probably doesn't hurt either. Also, a publisher is not going to toss your book away just on the first 13, nor are they going to buy it based on that. If they don't like the opening, but like what follows, they'll ask for more and request a change to the opening.

For short stories, though the matter is completely different. Most shorts are rejected from what is on the submitted first page, or roughly 13 lines. So I would say the general rule of thumb is that the first 13 is a must for shorts, and is a plus for novels, but not a necessity.


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Aalanya
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Can't remember how to quote. Rar. Sorry guys. I can't find the post that says how. (I know I've seen it somewhere...)

Christine said, "I decided a long time ago not to critique anything that wasn't at least somewhat competent in its writing because it's a waste of time for me to go over grammar, spelling, and basic phrasing with people who can't pull that sort of thing together."

I completely understand the sentiment. But I don't think it's a complete waste of time to review even those types of stories. If nobody points out just how much work the person needs to do, that person won't learn what he or she needs to work on. The current story may be an absolute mess with no hope of redemption, but that doesn't mean the person can't improve. But... it'll be harder for the writer to improve without critiques. I've seen stories with technical problems to make my head spin get reviews that say "this was excellent!" If those are the only reviews the person gets, that person isn't going to learn much of anything.


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keldon02
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I want to see the bait and not the hook. Normally I'll read the back cover blurb, the flyleaf blurbs and a few pages then if I'm uncertain will read a couple of chapter openings.

When I read the beginning of the story I'll put the damned thing back on the shelf if the first thing I see is a clot of incomprehensible action, choppy sentences, present tense narrative, t.v. dialog or neologisms. I'll read more if it looks like there might be some characterization and rudiments of plot development. I'll buy it if I'm interested in both the story as described by reviews (or the back cover) and the writing sounds readable.

I stopped reading most sci fi about 1975. Once I thought the reason might have been that I was getting slow or perhaps was too busy. But I like some writers (OSC is one and Bradbury is another) who write modern sci fi and I like unfamiliar pre 1975 stories (except from writers like Silverberg). I finally decided it is because around 1975 the popular style changed and became too contrived and 'busy'. People stopped spinning yarns and telling stories and started selling formula fiction.

[This message has been edited by keldon02 (edited March 16, 2006).]


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Christine
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Aalanya -- I used to read that stuff and tell the blunt truth, but I think I got burned too many times. Now all I'm willing to do with the sort of bad writing we're talking about is read the first 13 and make the suggestion basd on that.

You should have seen some of the critiques I used to do though. I'd spend hours going through and helping with comma placement, misconjugatd verbs, incompetently clunky sentences, misspelled words, and basic grammar errors. Then I got back lectures on how that wasn't what they wanted me to critique or even worse -- the suggestion that an editor would care more about the story than those aggregious errors.

It's nice that there are still some people who haven't been disillusioned to help those who will take the wake up call for what it is.


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plumeh
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I think That Matt Is Right!
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rcorporon
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quote:
Why should I be required to critique a hundred stories before I even have an opportunity of getting mine read?

This is quite incorrect.

For Critters you simply have to submit your MS, and make sure that your participation ratio is 75%.

The queue takes about 4 weeks to go through, which isn't that bad.

And then your ENTIRE story gets critted, not just the first 13.

Now, back to your regularly scheduled programming


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hoptoad
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I agree.
Critters is a great system.
Serves a different purpose than Hatrack.

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Survivor
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Eh, Critters is Critters, Hatrack is Hatrack.

I don't do full crits on novels unless I definitely feel that the writing is really strong enough to support a book.

When you set out to seriously write a novel, your skills should be at the level where you can even get solid feedback from your family and friends. In other words, you're so skilled that they are drawn into the story and care more about the characters and plot than about your feelings. When they point out a clutzy bit of prose or a basic error, they actually feel proud of having spotted something you didn't catch. They know you've got what it takes, and they know that you know it.

Now, there are different styles and different tastes. If a given friend or relative isn't in the audience for a work, they'll never be able to be much help. But when you're ready to write a novel length work, you'll know someone who'll read the whole thing and really like it for it's own sake rather than for yours. You don't really need to appeal to strangers. Maybe some of the friends will be people that you met at Hatrack. Really, if you're reading this post, it's quite likely. But they'll crit your work best because they take you seriously as a skilled writer.

So what if nobody that knows you will read your writing seriously? Well, you need to be improving your skills and making more literate friends. Of course, everyone should always be doing both those things already, but it's particularly important if you don't actually know anyone that takes you seriously as a writer. Which to concentrate on is obvious, since the best way to make literate friends is to be serious about improving your writing.

That's the strength of Hatrack, you get to know people (and vice versa), and the way you get to know them is by working on your writing. If you're serious about writing, you'll make friends here, even if you disagree with them occasionally (or often). You're not just getting crits, you're becoming part of a literary community, and that opens up an entire world to your view.


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Aalanya
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Christine - I thought you were just talking about the first 13. I don't know if I could stomach reviewing an entire story like that...
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hoptoad
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Survivor made this point already, but I want to say that i agree.

Hatrack allows you to grow relationships with developing writers whose work you respect. Critters doesn't do that. It allows you access to strangers who will read your work.

Critters is Critters. Hatrack is Hatrack.

[This message has been edited by hoptoad (edited March 16, 2006).]


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arriki
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I was in the bookstore trolling for reading material just today.

I look at the title, cover illustration (sorry, but it does affect me to some degree, though not as much as a good title) and the author's name. Then I read the inside flyleaf to see it the story sounds interesting. If the book passes all those tests, I open to the first chapter (I skip all prologues and whatever that are in italics.) and start reading. You really do have to prove something/show me something interesting within half the page or I reshelve the book and move on down the line. If the first page test reads well, I'll open to somewhere in the middle and see if the pages are full of long, dense paragraphs. I might sample one or two bits. If the book passes all these tests, I keep it out and, when I'm through with the looking, take it and any other possibles over to a comfy chair and look at them seriously. I take a little time to decide if I am going to really like reading this to the point of owning it or if it's something to note to pick up at the library.


A good title helps a lot, especially when so many books have only the spine showing.


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Silver3
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I proceed thus: either I know what I want to buy on entering the place (I count searching for books by authors I like in this category), or I don't. In the last case, I'll take a look at what's on display at the tables, to see what's new.

The cover helps to grab my eye, but not much. I don't trust blurbs anymore, so I flip to the first page, read a bit (2-3 pages, more if I have time). Then, being a contrary person, I flip the book to a random page near the middle, and see whether the fireworks of the beginning have fizzled out.

But more and more I buy books because someone has recommended them to me, or because I've read something good on the author on the net.


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krazykiter
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Christine,
quote:

Then I got back lectures on how that wasn't what they wanted me to critique or even worse

I've done several crits here, and I do point out grammatical issues (hopefully I haven't been too picky). Maybe I've just gotten lucky, but so far no one has flamed me for it. Frankly, I'd appreciate someone double-checking grammar and punctuation because I know I don't catch everything.

OTOH, if the first 13 shows me some pretty egregious errors, I doubt I'll read.


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Christine
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krazy, it's ironic that those lectures came almost exclusively from people whose work was riddled with errors...I continue to point out minor errors to people who overall have a handle on writing with no problems.
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pantros
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Those of us who generally can put words together properly appreciate the people who can spot the errors we miss.

Its the people whose manuscripts are riddled with errors who don't appreciate it, though they need the most help. But, text riddled with typos and poor punctuation is unreadable to those of us who take writing seriously, so we fix what needs to be fixed first.


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Elan
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I've blathered about my feelings before, concerning the first 13:
Why the problem with the 1st 13 isn't that it's too short

Christine has hit the nail on the head. Most of the anguished protests about how unfair it is to limit the crit to the first 13 come from inexperienced writers who don't want to let this reality in: IF YOUR WRITING SUCKS, IT WILL BE OBVIOUS IN THE FIRST 13.

Interesting this topic came up. Two days ago I was in the grocery store and stopped by the aisle where they display the top selling paperbacks. I went through about ten of them and read only the first 13. Funny how the books with the really captivating first 13 are authors who have been around a long time. Of the top sellers in that rack, VC Andrews had the best opening first 13, in my opinion.

I came to the realization some time ago that getting serious about writing has hampered my ability to be a simple reader. Now I find myself thinking about the mechanics of how a good author works their magic. And when I pick up a book, fully intending to focus on the author's technique and end up forgetting my mission and find myself swept into the story... that's when I label them a GREAT author.


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Survivor
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See, I've never had the ability to read without registering the specifics of what affected me. But I've loved to read ever since I can remember, while I only stopped actively hating writing after I learned to type.

I don't worry about grammar, the only things that matter to me are syntax and semantics. If both are terrible, then I won't read because it requires psychic powers to figure out what the writer is trying to say anyway


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rcorporon
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I don't disagree with you at all Elan.

However, there is a difference between F&F people saying "Your writing isn't good" and "I don't know what is going on? I need more info."

It's not the "you suck" stuff that gets to me, it's the "I need to know the ENTIRE plot in 13 lines" that bugs me.


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Corky
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I think that when someone says, "I don't know what's going on," or, "I need more information," they are not saying they need the entire plot in the first 13 lines.

I think that what they are saying is more like, "I can't visualize what's going on here." If the writer doesn't give the reader enough to "get" something about the story in the first 13 lines, what's the point of turning the page?


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Survivor
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I think that sometimes there are confused souls out there that do think that's what should be in the first 13 lines, but I imagine that they're rare.

When I say that a passage is ambiguous, I clearly state whether the ambiguity is good or bad, and why. But for your purposes, it's not necessary that anyone do that. If the ambiguity is the good kind, they'll ask for the rest of the story, desho?

As I've said before, good ambiguity is focused, it has the reader asking specific (if rather broad) questions. Bad ambiguity is everything else. Sometimes a good ambiguity requires a bit of the bad kind, such as when you try to show that the narrator has a very strange perceptual framework, or is unreliable for some other reason. Some people will have the ability to cut through a significant amount of the bad ambiguity as long as it is no more than is necessary to raising the good ambiguity, some won't.

But if everyone would rather read thirteen lines that answer the questions directly than the story you've written, your ambiguity is definitely the bad kind.


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sholar
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So, this might be a really stupid question but as far as spelling, doesn't grammer and spell check catch the worst of it? Like, how do you get a story riddled with errors. I know word doesn't catch everything, but it should make things atleast readable. Now, online on boards and IM, I am horribly lazy and my spelling is awful, but when I type stories, I always run spell check.
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Christine
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I wouldnt' call that a stupid question, but let's be reaslistic.

They went too the store too bye sum cake for their birthday party.

Some of the worst errors are words that are spelled correctly (and so MS Word doesn't catch them) but are not actually the right word.

As to grammar check, it is only marginally useful. A great many technically correct but incredibly clunky sentences get through grammar check. For that matter, some incorrect sentences get through and some correct sentences get tagged.


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Kolona
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Yet the sad fact is that with many editors, thirteen lines is about all the chance your work will get.
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Elan
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True dat about spellcheck... MS Word does not catch improper use of their, there, and they're. How about to, two, and too? Nor does it differentiate between rain, rein and reign, an error I see regularly. Bottom line is you cannot depend on computers. It's like your multiplication tables... at some point you have to simply buckle down and memorize the rules.
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sholar
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To, too and two have been drilled into me since first grade. I guess I am suprised to see an error like that. I tend to make mistakes like i before e and "or" vs "er" which word is great at fixing. I also sometimes type the first half of a sentence and then finish it in my head and not the paper. So, my writing is improved tremendously by word. I guess I am lucky that my problems are in areas that word is good at.
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Survivor
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Well, you have a very modest spelling problem, in that you're occasionally unsure of the exact orthography of particular words that you otherwise know pretty well. The worse (and by no means uncommon) spelling problem is to not have a solid foundation of vocabulary. So you do things like mispelling "hymnal" and when spell check presents a list of selected corrections you choose "hymenal".

The worst spelling problem is when you consistently get the exactly right spelling for the exactly wrong word, so the spellcheck never even hiccups. Your readers, on the other hand....


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Elan
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Survivor's story about "hymnal" reminded me of a time I was teasing a male friend. I told him he was "virile." He didn't know what the word meant, so I pulled out the dictionary as somewhat of a sarcastic gesture. When I looked up the word "virile" I discovered the word "viral" right next to it, so I pointed at THAT word instead. He went away thinking I'd called him a bacteria....

Moral of the story is: enrich your vocabulary. It may be your only defense. Along that line, I recommend subscribing to Dr. Goodwords "Word of the Day." For those of us who enjoy reading the dictionary for fun, this is a nice daily tidbit:
Dr. Goodword's Word of the Day from the Alpha Dictionary

[This message has been edited by Elan (edited March 23, 2006).]


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Survivor
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You've got an extra few characters at the beginning of that url somehow.

As for guys that don't know the meaning of the world "virile"...


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Elan
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Sorry about that ... I forgot to double-check my link... it's fixed now.
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Christine
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quote:
So, this might be a really stupid question but as far as spelling, doesn't grammer and spell check catch the worst of it? Like, how do you get a story riddled with errors. I know word doesn't catch everything, but it should make things atleast readable. Now, online on boards and IM, I am horribly lazy and my spelling is awful, but when I type stories, I always run spell check.

I just wrote the following..."They were too old or two young..."

I caught the error -- this time. I sometimes wonder how many I don't catch, especially in a novel when my eyes get crossed at trying to parse every word to make sure it is correct. The truth is, many times, even in edits, we see what we expect to see.

But the odd error is obviously and distinctly different from a pattern of errors.


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djvdakota
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I know I'm coming in on this WELL after the fact, but I have to laugh uproariously at Survivor's last comment. Hymenal!
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