I've been reading the "First 13" from a few people here and one of the things striking me is how simple things can ruin a first impression. This is by no means meant as a criticism to the people who've submitted, in truth I make every mistake I've seen and then a few more!
Since simple mistakes can detract so much from a first impression here, I can only imagine that when submitting a manuscript for publication it becomes even more important to catch them before you send it out. So, I'd like to ask if there's a specific book on style, for fiction, that is recommended?
I've seen Extrinsic mention The Chicago Manual of Style, and I completed a BA in Comparative Literature so I'm 'familiar' with MLA formatting guidelines, but the truth is I think the teachers were always more in love with my ideas than with my attention to detail--I know they let me slide at some times when I wish they'd reigned me in some more.
Specifically: I toss commas around like hand grenades--I use them any time I'd take a natural pause in speaking--and then I clean them up a bit afterwards. Also, I drift towards passive voice when I should be using more active verbs. Oh, and I only use semi-colons when Microsoft underlines one of my sentences in green and suggests I use a semi-colon... but most of the times I'll just rewrite that sentence.
P.S. As an afterthought, if someone knows of a great website that contains a review of most of the rules I should be studying, I wouldn't mind not having to spend money.
I used to be a commaholic. Now I'm a commaphobe. I started going by the principle, "when it doubt, leave it out," and it has worked better for me. I realized that I was trying to control the reader's pacing by using too many commas. I think it's easier to go back and put one or two in than have to do a full blown comma-ectomy.
I don't believe in semicolons in fiction except on extremely rare occasions. So I generally ignore my word processor. However, I will sometimes change the sentence structure to make it proper without the semicolon.
if someone thought you needed to take an aspirin standing on your head for it to work, and you explained that they can achieve the same effect more simply, I would not see that as dumbing down... more like smartening up.
they are still free to do it the other way, should they prefer the headrush, and other ancillary effects
[This message has been edited by Andrew_McGown (edited September 11, 2009).]
I've been criticised, on this board and elsewhere, for over-elaborating punctuation. Too many commas, not all of which are needed; frequent semi-colons; even a tendency to end a sentence with an ellipsis...
I am aware of it as an issue but it's a stylistic choice. Some people prefer simpler, sparse, prose. Some don't. I throw in the short, pithy sentence (even the short one-sentence paragraph) for precisely the same reason as is mentioned above; to control the pacing.
Ultimately, style is individual, and MOST editors will recognise that and not try and mess with a writer's style (I have had one piece where lots of long sentences were chopped to bits, but then the editor left that project and the story has never appeared).
If your voice WORKS, you can do what you like with it. I certainly have no evidence that it's stopping me from selling (where reasons have been given for rejections I've received, punctuation has never been mentioned).
I don't like semicolons in fiction simply because I find them distracting. They're usage is so infrequent that when I see one my attention is drawn to the structure and away from the words. It has nothing to do with 'dumbing it down'.
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Back to bad first impressions, spelling errors and/or incorrect choice of homonyms can also be a problem for readers.
I've seen a few things here that I've debated with myself on mentioning, and usually I've chosen not to say anything. Unless someone uses the term "passive" incorrectly, to refer to state of being verbs, for example, and I'm beginning to throw my hands up about bothering with that any more.
As an example of some incorrect choices of homonyms, I'll mention two.
Using "reign in" to refer to restraint. The proper word choice is "rein in" and come from using the reins on a horse to slow the horse down. The word "reign" may seem to fit, but it refers more to administrative duties of a king or queen.
Using "peak" or "peek" to mean something like "titilate" as in making someone interested. The correct word is "pique" and means excite or arouse and is usually used in the phrase "it piqued my interest." The word, as a noun, means something like resentment, as in "she stomped off in a fit of pique." So you could think of it as a kind of variation on "poke."
There have been several discussions here on the Hatrack River Writers Workshop forum on grammar and there is a topic with links to some of them in the FAQs area, or you can go to the topic directly by using this link.
You can also do a search for topics on grammar by clicking on the search link (near the upper right hand corner of the screen, under the Post Reply button) and using grammar for the Search Word and Open Discussions on Writing for the Search Forum/Archive and Subject Only for the Search In.
Sure there is some allowance for style, but sometimes things drift off into incomprehension. I'm sorry but, ending a sentence with an ellipsis is just ugly . . . . If you put a comma somewhere it doesn't belong it just obfuscates the, meaning. I really hate exclamation marks! If you have to wait till the end of the sentence to figure out that it should be shouted then you aren't telling your story well enough!
When I was running a fiction magazine we had space for one more story and we were debating between two, we took the one that required the least work. That is why your first impression is so important, because editors are lazy and if your first few lines scream work then they might have a hard time caring about your characters. I have heard/read people say that they'll let the editor worry about their punctuation. To me that's just like throwing your food on the ground and saying "oh, the janitor will clean that up." Well, I say to them, I have been an editor and a janitor and we have a lot more to do than clean up your messes.
I don't know anything about proper punctuation, but I do know that tchernabyelo's post read quickly and smoothly. It was uncommonly easy to read. If that's how you write all the time, tchernabyelo, I think you should stick with it.
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So far I feel like I've gotten some great advice. I don't feel like my grammatical inadequacies are getting in the way of my fiction, I just want to make the best possible impression when submitting here or for publication. I'm going to follow the "when in doubt, leave it out" mantra, review Elements of Style, and be glad to participate in a community with such helpful people.
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Mechanical style; grammar, punctuation, spelling, and syntax; are the responsibility of all concerned in publication. Starting with a writer, then a reading circle, and on into publication, screening readers, copyeditors, and layout editors, checking style is a team effort, partly with the law of diminishing returns kicking in at some point, but largely a finer and finer sieve as a story progresses through a copyediting process.
Just ten pages of manuscript will have 2500 words, as many white spaces, a fourth again as many punctuation marks, for a total of about 5600 meaningful glyphs. Getting it all correct for all concerned is more of an ongoing process than a final result in most cases. In older novels, I encounter on average six nondiscretionary style hits. In newer novels, it's getting into the dozens.
A screening reader who encounters more than a one or two nondiscretionary style hits in the first several hundred words of a manuscript won't have confidence that a story will be worth reading any further along, let alone passing it up the chain.
Prose style rules in general are about the creative use of Standard Written English, and contravening them, the creative use of language. What works and doesn't work is often a matter of subjective opinion, whether a grammatical deviation is a vice or a virtue.
In the larger scheme of things, style is also a matter of audience targeting. A fifty-word sentence length average is highly unlikely to appeal to mid grade readers, and not very likely to appeal to young adult readers. Many college level readers are not all that excited by a story told in a lot of long sentences either. Diction also, long words don't appeal to younger readers.
In syntax, there's a tendency in novels to run dependent clauses, appositive clauses, and parenthetical clauses into long train-wreck sentences.
She cleared her throat, preparing to launch into a long-winded speech with a wool-gathering discourse marker, "You know," she said, now thinking that he listened intently, as though she believed he was interested in what she had to say, like she cared what he thought.
Oh, my word, what a train wreck!
Chicago Manual of Style is the primary style manual for most publishers of U.S. English prose. Words Into Type, less formal, less comprehensive, is used at many fantastical genre publications, those that have a house style manual. Also, individual preferences of the publisher trump style manual rules and recommendations.
[This message has been edited by extrinsic (edited September 11, 2009).]
all stylistic issue aside, my mantra is: 'does it work?' if the 'machine' of your writing does not work, figure out why. It is as much about the 'engineering' as it is about aesthetic. When aesthetic considerations begin to threaten functionality then you have to ask yourself what it is you are trying to achieve.
PS: that 'train-wreck' of a sentence in the above post is like a machine where all the gears turn in slightly counter-productive ways and don't mesh. In the end, the whole machine seizes up.
[This message has been edited by Andrew_McGown (edited September 11, 2009).]
Seriously though, there are very definite rules for punctuation, which often can be ignored in literature at the discretion of the writer. Traditionally, when one begins a sentence with a three or more syllable adverbial conjunction, like traditionally, it requires a comma. This rule is usually followed in literature. When a sentence begins with a dependent clause like this one does, it is also supposed to have a comma. However, I often see sentences beginning with adverbs or prepositions, such as if, when, as, in, etc., that do not have commas.
A compound sentence separated by a conjuction is suppose to have a comma, unless the second independent clause is very closely related to the first. Semicolons serve a similar function; a writer can continue a thought without requiring a conjuction or comma. Contradictory independent clauses are the exception, such as in the first sentence in this paragraph. Examples set apart from the rest of the sentence are supposed to have a comma.
Ibdavid, greetings and interjections should have a comma. Three or more items, descriptions or thoughts listed consecutively also require commas, except for the one before and or or, which is optional. The exception to this rule is when the items, descriptions, or thoughts are set within a series of long clauses or have commas, which requires semicolons.
As you know, commas also separate quotations. Then there are the rules about city, states and the like.
The last reason for a comma is what I will simply call a descriptive phrase, which is not the real name, but it covers several scenarios like this sentence. Breaks in a sentence, which refer to the previous clause or phrase, require commas to separate it.
I think that about covers it. The only other thing I can think of is when a semicolon separates two independent clauses with an adverbial conjunction like however, furthermore, etc.
quote:I don't like semicolons in fiction simply because I find them distracting. They're usage is so infrequent that when I see one my attention is drawn to the structure and away from the words. It has nothing to do with 'dumbing it down'.
Really? Punctuation has never stopped me in a story. When I am reading for fun, I only get stopped when something is unclear. I like semicolons. Of course they should be used sparingly, but if they are used correctly and at key moments in a story, they can make the moment more dramatic.
That was the best lesson I've ever had on commas to date. If any of my high school English teachers had offered anything that illustrative & simple I might have done a bit better til now. Thanks to everyone who chimed in. I found my copy of S&W, I'll give it a re-read.
It has been said that grammar is the roadsigns and traffic signals for the literate, so remember this: if the destination is good enough, if the ride is enjoyable enough, you won't care if you accidentally run a red light. Posts: 823 | Registered: May 2009
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