Jul 4 2016

Military terms and style in fiction: Get them right

NOTE: The following are general guidelines on usage and capitalization of military terms, services, and ranks when writing primarily for a U.S. audience.

Using the wrong word, or capitalizing a military term incorrectly, may fly right by a reader who has never been in the military or is unfamiliar with military terminology and style, but if a reader has served in the military, it waves a big red flag that the writer didn’t do the research. Minor errors can create the impression in the reader’s mind that the author is writing about something with little to no knowledge of the topic. That breaks the ‘suspension of disbelief’ for the reader.

So as a diligent writer, you do the research on usage, and guess what? You’ll find a variety of conflicting advice, recommendations, and style choices. Which one should you use?

There are two basic and safe choices to make: Chicago Manual of Style (CMoS) or Associated Press (AP). There are even a few differences between the two. CMoS is generally regarded as the primary style guide for fiction and non-fiction books, and AP is the premier style for journalism.

There are also formal military writing style guides. Each branch of the U.S. Armed Forces has its own style guide for how they use military terms. Like many organizations, they prefer to uppercase a wide variety of terms in internal writing and documents that the fiction writer wouldn’t, and shouldn’t, normally capitalize.

RANKS
For ranks such as private, captain, and admiral, there are traditional abbreviations and capitalization styles, and then each service branch has their own set of styles.

For example, if Fred Jones is a colonel in the U.S. Army, the military would write his name as COL Jones (all cap, no period). But Bill Smith is a colonel in the U.S. Air Force, so he writes his name Col. Smith.

It’s going to look pretty awkward and inconsistent if you have both COL Jones and Col. Smith as characters in your novel. Your best bet is the traditional abbreviation “Col.”– and the recommendation of both Chicago and AP style is stick with the traditional abbreviations regardless of which branch your character serves.

Keep in mind that different branches of the military have different ranks. Call a Navy officer a colonel and you’ll lose a lot of readers since there is no such rank in the Navy.

In the Navy, a captain is a senior-grade officer, the same level as a colonel is to the Army, Air Force, and Marines. On the other hand, a captain in the other services is a junior-grade or company-level officer, three ranks below that of a Navy captain. One way to help remember this is that in the Army and other services, a mid-rank officer may captain a small group of people (like a company, which usually consists of 100 to 250 soldiers), but in the Navy, a much higher ranking officer will captain a ship or the largest ship in a fleet and all the sailors onboard.

There are also a variety of levels of some ranks. If your character is a lieutenant, is he a first lieutenant or a second lieutenant? Is your character a sergeant, a staff sergeant, a technical sergeant, or a master sergeant? Study the ranks and be familiar with them. Your readers may well be.

When do you capitalize a rank such as Colonel/colonel or Sergeant/sergeant?

Sticking with CMoS and AP style, only capitalize ranks when used as a title with a name or as a name. Use lowercase when referring to the rank generically or collectively for a group.

“I spoke with Col. Jones today.” (title is capitalized)
“I spoke with the sergeant today.” (generic term even though referring to a specific person)
“Yes, sir, Admiral.” (used as a proper name)
“We’re meeting with several generals at the Pentagon today.” (generic, collective)

Notice the title is only abbreviated when used with a name. In other cases, spell out the word, the same as you would with Mr. or mister or Mister and Dr. or doctor or Doctor.

Besides the exact ranks, know the difference between enlisted ranks and the officer corps; between commissioned, non-commissioned, and warrant officers; and between field officers and general officers. Know which ranks, in what order, for each service, and know the general job duties of each rank. You don’t want a general piloting a fighter jet (not likely) in a war zone, and you don’t want a corporal leading a brigade or a lieutenant giving orders to a major.

BRANCHES
The names of the services are another conundrum for deciding when to capitalize.

Is it Army or army, Navy or navy, Marines or marines, Air Force or air force?

Again, assuming you’re writing for a U.S. audience, then remember that proper nouns are capitalized. The names of the official branches of the U.S. military are proper nouns – like corporate or organizational names.

- U.S. Army
- U.S. Navy
- U.S. Marine Corps
- U.S. Air Force

Do you still capitalize the U.S. military branches even when you shorten the term by dropping the ‘U.S.’ It depends. Chicago Manual of Style says no, but AP style says yes. Here, my personal preference goes to AP as the word is still referring to the proper noun of the official organizational name.
CMoS: Bill served in the navy in the Gulf War.
AP Style: Bill served in the Navy in the Gulf War.

Do not capitalize when referring to a generic military or to the military of another country, unless you’re specifically using the proper noun for the foreign military organization.

Sarah became friends with her counterpart in the Iraqi army.
The navies of five countries clashed in the battle that waged for three days.

SOLDIERS, SAILORS, AIRMEN, MARINES
Another point you want to get right is the correct term for a service member based on which branch of the military he or she serves. Meet a Marine in a bar and call him a soldier, you may find yourself with a black eye. Call a Marine a soldier in a novel, you’ll get a black eye from many readers.

Army – soldier
Navy – sailor
Air Force – airman (male or female, doesn’t matter, they’re all airmen)
Marine Corps – Marine

One exception: the word ‘soldier’ is a good generic term for a military service member, especially of a non-U.S. military, when the specific branch is not specified or known. But if your generic military member is serving onboard a ship, chances are he’s a sailor, not a soldier.

Did you catch the capitalization difference on Marine used above?

In AP style, Marine is treated differently than soldier, sailor, or airman. That’s because Marine is one of two cases in which the title of the service member is the same as the proper noun of the organization (we’ll get to the second case later). CMoS, however, doesn’t draw that distinction and does not capitalize marine when referring to an individual member of the Marines. To me, the AP distinction makes sense because it is specifically using the proper noun. But if you want to be consistent and stick with CMoS throughout your book, then go with lowercase marine.

Joe is a Marine, serving in the Marines. (Marine is capitalized in AP Style, but not in CMoS)
Susie is a soldier, serving in the Army. (soldier is not capitalized)

Only follow this capitalization rule on Marine if you’re writing about a U.S. Marine (who serves in the U.S. Marine Corps, which is often shortened to ‘the Corps’), and writing for an American audience.

Boris is a marine, serving in the Russian marines.

Here again, the military branches have their own style guides that differ. If you’re in the Army, for example, and you’re writing a document for the military, the Army’s style guide will capitalize Soldier. But that’s not the style fiction writers should follow.

Here’s a point you won’t find in style guides. For those who have served in the Marines, they take a lot of pride in their service and their branch of the military, and they have a saying: “Once a Marine, always a Marine.”

If you’re writing about a character who used to serve in the Marines but is now out of the military, the word ‘ex-Marine’ can cause a lot of consternation from readers who are or have been Marines. “There are no ex-Marines,” you may hear from readers. While there’s nothing technically wrong with this term, why irritate readers unnecessarily? A ‘formerly active-duty Marine,’ or ‘a Marine who served in the 1990s,’ or some other phrasing that makes it clear this character used to be in the Marines but no longer serves might show a Marine reader you get it. There are no ex-Marines.

One other organization to mention: the U.S. Coast Guard. The Coast Guard is slightly different in that it is under the Department of Homeland Security. Previously, it fell under the Department of Transportation. It is not under the Department of Defense, but it is still considered a military service branch, although it’s the only military service not under Defense.

A member of the Coast Guard (male or female) is a Coast Guardsman, capitalized like Marine since it shares the same title as the proper noun of the organization.

MEDALS OF VALOR
One last pet peeve of mine, and this will set teeth on edge with any military readers.

Athletes win medals at the Olympics.

Service members do not win medals.

Service members are awarded medals for acts of valor and heroism. It is not a contest or a competition. It is awarded for an unselfish act of courage. If someone has received a medal, he is a recipient of that medal, not the winner.

Never say a soldier won the Congressional Medal of Honor. You’ll have military readers throwing your novel across the room in anger.

OTHER STUFF
If you’re writing about military matters in any detail, do your research. It’s important to get it right. How many people are in a squad, a platoon, a company, a brigade, a battalion? How many sailors are onboard an aircraft carrier? What’s the difference between a destroyer, a cruiser, and a frigate? Why do some Navy ship names start with USS and others start with USNS? Isn’t every fighter pilot in the Air Force? (The answer is no.)

The details are endless, and a good portion of your readership will know if you get it wrong.

Post Script: Discussion has arisen about use of periods in the abbreviation U.S. vs. US. Again, there are different styles. AP still uses periods in text (U.S.), but CMoS says either are correct and prefers without (US). However, CMoS says to use without periods if you use the postal code abbreviations for states (NY, MD, IL, CA), but use periods with U.S. if you use the standard state abbreviations (N.Y., Md., Ill., Calif.). I find the postal abbreviations in states awkward in fiction writing, so my personal preference is to stick with U.S. and standard state abbreviations.

RESOURCES
Army ranks: https://www.army.mil/symbols/armyranks.html

Navy ranks: http://www.navy.mil/navydata/ranks/officers/o-rank.html

Air Force officer ranks: http://www.military.com/air-force/officer-ranks.html

Air Force enlisted ranks: http://www.military.com/air-force/enlisted-ranks.html

Marine Corps ranks: http://www.marines.mil/Marines/Ranks.aspx

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Robb Grindstaff has never served in the military, but for thirteen years worked for Stars and Stripes, the daily newspaper published for U.S. service members and their families stationed overseas. He served in positions including general manager of the Asia/Pacific region, based in Tokyo, Japan, and executive editor in the Washington, D.C., headquarters. Robb’s newspaper career has spanned more than thirty-five years. He has edited fiction for ten years and has two published novels (Evolved Publishing), one of which is about a teenage military brat growing up overseas (Carry Me Away), plus a dozen or so published short stories.

 


Feb 6 2016

In search of the perfect sentence

What makes a perfect sentence in a work of fiction? Should writers care? Do readers care?

Stanley Fish in a New Statesman article (Feb. 17, 2011) says: A sentence is a structure of logical relationships. Fish is the author of the book How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One.

Those well-crafted, logical sentences are what conveys the story in a way that pulls the reader in.

Well-crafted sentences with well-chosen words have a purpose: to engage readers with the story and characters. Sentences aren’t meant to stand alone so we can admire the sentence and think, “What a beautiful sentence. What a brilliant writer.” Well, perhaps in the realm of poetry, but not so much in fiction.

“Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” In other words, a writer can spend so much time finding the perfect word or perfect sentence that they never finish the story, or have a blah story filled with perfectly crafted but blah sentences.

I’ve read several John Grisham novels. No one has ever accused him of being a great literary writer. But his words, sentences, paragraphs, and scenes are tight and serviceable – in service of the story. I can read one of his books, be caught up in the plot and action, and enjoy every moment in the story. At the end, I never noticed his writing. Not good, not bad, but invisible. A fun read. But neither are they stories I remember for life or have a desire to re-read time and time again.

I’ve read several Dan Brown novels, and enjoyed them the same as I would a Grisham novel, except for that occasional clunker, amateurish sentence that stops me cold, takes me out of the story, and I wonder how a writer (and numerous editors) missed it.

I’ve read books – I won’t name the writers or titles – that were so caught up in making a pretentious point of exhibiting all the writer’s glorious literary skill that I was bored in minutes. Often those sentences come across as amateur middle-school poetry. Blah.

And then there are writers like John Irving, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Amy Tan, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, Haruki Murakami, and countless others – writers who craft a story and characters that draw you in from the first sentence and carry you away in another world until the last sentence, with unique insights and perspectives and an art in their writing that never interferes with, but adds to, the beauty of the story and the depth of the characters.

Most novels are made up of thousands of sentences that are ‘good enough.’ Simple, straightforward, functional, and taken as a whole, they tell a story that engages readers. That’s what matters.

All sentences need to be ‘good enough.’ Every sentence needs to convey information in the best way possible while still conveying the individual writer’s unique style and voice. A few clunkers or confusing sentences in a novel can ruin an otherwise good story for readers.

Even what might be a simple, straightforward sentence might be ‘perfect’ in context – it was exactly the set of words in the right order for that specific moment in the story. If you read that sentence alone, it might be grammatically correct and clear but not particularly memorable or powerful. But in the context of the story, connected to the sentences preceding and following, it might have tremendous impact on readers.

The Bible verse “Jesus wept” is a simple, declarative two-word sentence, the shortest verse in the Bible. Editors today might say it’s “all telling and not showing.” But in the context of the scene and story, that two-word sentence is emotionally powerful and conveys layers of depth.

While the sentence “She cried” probably isn’t going to have that level of power in your novel, it could, depending on context.

But now and then, while reading a good story, a particular sentence will so perfectly capture a moment that it can take your breath away. Or make you see something routine in a whole new way. Or describe a scene or setting or action or emotion in a way that resonates deeply. A sentence that you can stop and re-read two or three times to savor it, wallow in it, and doing so doesn’t take you out of the story, but pulls you in even more. The sentence that, as a writer, you slap yourself on the forehead and say, “Why have I never thought of saying it that way?”

These are the sentences you can read “standalone,” with no context, and they still resonate. These are the ‘perfect’ sentences I have in mind.

A perfect sentence may be a longer, complex sentence with several clauses, lots of big words, commas, and, for crying out loud, even semicolons. It may use words that are clear but unusual, not the most obvious word choice, but going for something different, and it works especially well. Or that perfect sentence may be a simple sentence using common, ordinary words to describe something those words aren’t normally associated with.

The perfect sentence may be a simile or a metaphor, or a simple declarative sentence. It may have a rhythm or cadence that sings in the reader’s mind.

In short, there is no formula for the perfect sentence or we’d all be writing perfect sentences all the time. There’s no book or course that teaches how to write a perfect sentence. What’s perfect in one writer’s style and voice won’t match another’s.

What do some other writers say about the ‘perfect sentence’?

Diane Nelson: “Rather than ‘perfect’—which is too subjective, too prone to popularization, too cultishly precious—my metric is based on how a particular arrangement of words slices through the fog of banalities and reveals some essential truth.”

Matt Sinclair: “I will revise often, which might involve changing words, revamping the sentence, removing perfectly good sentences that don’t add to the story. Rhythm, pacing, selecting “le mot juste,” etc., all factor in. And I pray that others think the story is as interesting as I do.”

Jim Murphy: “The goal for me is to get the idea into the reader’s head with the least possible effort. If the reader has to stop and think about what the sentence meant because of some ambiguity of wording, then that presents a hurdle for the idea.”

Marj McRae: “It depends on what sort of story you are writing. I want my reader to be so absorbed that they never give a thought to the actual words or the arrangement of words, but are seeing the action in front of their eyes. If they stop to think about the perfect sentence, then the action is interrupted.”

Rick Pieters: “For me, anyway, when I hit that kind of sentence, it doesn’t take me out of the story, it immerses me more deeply. The pause is no more than a brief, deep breath, a moment that lets me ‘see’ more deeply what the author is saying. If it stopped the flow, interrupted the story, my pause would more likely be to throw the book across the room.”

 

I asked some writer-friends on social media to submit examples of their best sentences. Most writers are willing to share their work, their favorite passages, even their favorite sentences. Writers can have egos, but they can also be very insecure. Ask a writer to provide a perfect sentence they’ve written, the insecurity rises to the top.

No writer wants to say, “Here’s a sentence I wrote, and it’s perfect!” That’s opening yourself up to a barrage of critique, criticism, and snarky derision–mostly from other writers.

But the examples below are sentences the writers felt, and I agreed, are better than the average sentence, a sentence with some degree of depth or new perspective that makes the sentence stand out, even when read with no context of the surrounding story.

 

This night, this time and place, the music and the slow rhythm of not belonging ached in ways that sinned. – Good Boy Bad, Nya Rawlyns

His blue eyes danced with merriment and he smiled, revealing dimples at the corners of his mouth, held slightly open, as if he were weighing the effect of his pretense on this unsuspecting observer. – A King in Time II, Mary Enck

Arson was sounding a lot more sensible than living with a pothead and his Jesus freak boss. – Cassia (publishes March 2016), Lanette Kauten

And whom shall I fear if not the devil, the grim torturer who conquered my aspirations and left me without a recognizable world of my own? – Forgive Me, Alex by Lane Diamond

The silence while they ate occupied palpable space in the room, a constant guest at their table. – “Winter’s Birds,” Summer’s Double Edge short story anthology, Rick Pieters

Turning my back to you, I sought to distance myself from the beat of your irregular heart. – “Bedtime Story,” from Alalitcom, Alabama Writers’ Conclave 2008, Deanne Charlton

The bourbon smelled like a hangover and a fight with my wife. – Untitled work in progress, Matt Sinclair

Very little of what you learn is ever useful or important, Nikolai. – Sin Eater, P.K. Tyler and Jessica West

 

I’ll even toss in a couple of my own to wrap things up.

As the baby waves ran back to their ocean mother, they erased my footprints and left only a faint trace, a distant memory of where I’d walked. – Carry Me Away, Robb Grindstaff

She’d learned to shoot left-handed after he’d removed her trigger finger with a pair of pliers. – “Desert Rain,” from Sonoran Dreams: Three Stories from Exile, Robb Grindstaff

 

Do you have a favorite sentence from fiction, whether something you’ve written or from someone else’s work?

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Dec 10 2013

Tag, you’re it

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“Why do you recommend avoiding dialogue tags as much as possible?” she asked sweetly.

Dialogue tags do good and necessary things. They help readers keep it straight in their minds who is speaking, thus reducing confusion and getting lost in the dialogue. The problem with dialogue tags is when they’re overused. Keeping them to a minimum is the key. With almost any writing issue, overuse is the problem rather than a ‘never do this’ rule. This is true with dialogue tags.

Tags aren’t the only way to cue readers as to who is speaking. There are several ways to do this. Many newer writers haven’t mastered all the different ways to do this, so they rely too heavily on tags.

Tags have some inherent negatives, so overuse amplifies those negatives. When used sparingly and intermixed with other types of cues, those negatives are minimized and don’t attract attention to themselves, which interrupts the story in the reader’s mind.

Negatives for tags:

- They constantly remind readers that they are reading a story. Just when the reader is getting good and involved in the scene, there’s a ‘she said’ that momentarily — subconsciously and for a fraction of a second — reminds the reader that they’re just reading a work of fiction, not experiencing a real moment. Load up on tags, and all those fractions of a second start to add up and interrupt the story for the reader.

- Choppy writing breaks up the smooth flow of dialogue. Overuse can give the prose a staccato, repetitive sound in the reader’s head.
“Hello,” he said.
“Hi,” she replied.
“How are you?” he asked.
“I’m fine,” she answered.

- Overcompensating for too many tags by getting too creative with the tags.
“You’re sexy,” he growled.
“So are you,” she purred.
“Let’s go somewhere quieter,” he suggested.
“That’s a great idea,” she concurred.
This type of tag draws attention to itself, away from the words of dialogue, the characters, and the scene.

- Adding adverbs or phrases to tell the reader how something was said. Rather than letting the spoken words carry the tone, the writer feels the need to describe the tone.
“We could go to my place,” he suggested suggestively.
“Is your wife out of town?” she inquired curiously.
“Yes, she went to stay with her mother,” he responded in a conspiratorial tone.
“Then let’s go,” she purred sweetly.

All of this overuse, repetition, staccato choppiness, awkward ‘saidisms,’ overuse of adverbs and tone description adds up to a mess that creates stilted dialogue and breaks the moment of the scene for readers. It adds ‘tell’ at the expense of ‘show.’

A few other tools you can use to reduce the need for dialogue tags:

- Action beats:
“Then let’s go.” She stepped to the curb and waved for a taxi.

- Internal thoughts. Similar to an action beat, but an internal, first-person thought:
“Then let’s go.” What am I doing? He’s a married man.

- Internal narration:
She’d never had a fling with a married man before, but her lust overpowered her Catholic guilt. “Then let’s go.”

- Proper paragraph style. Keep each character’s dialogue lines and actions (and internal thoughts/narration) in a separate paragraph. When a line of dialogue, an action, or an internal thought/narration is from a different character, make it a new paragraph. For example, look at this paragraph:
“Then let’s go.” She waved for a taxi. He opened the door to the cab for her and slid in after her. “410 Main Street, please.”
In that paragraph, it’s impossible to tell who said “410 Main Street” because both characters take action in the same paragraph. There should be a new paragraph beginning at ‘He opened the door…’ Then, if “410 Main Street” is in the same paragraph with his action, it’s clear that he said it. If she said it, then “410 Main Street” would go in a third paragraph, and might still need a dialogue tag or action beat so it’s clear who is speaking, depending on the overall context.

- Nature of the dialogue. Take this bit of a scene. Isn’t it clear in each line who is speaking?
“Your place? Your wife isn’t home?”
“No. She’s at her mother’s for the weekend.”
“You know, I’ve never been with a married man before. I don’t want to be a homewrecker.”
“Our home has been wrecked for years. You couldn’t possibly do any more damage to my marriage.”
“I don’t want to be the ‘other’ woman. I can’t share you with her.”
“I promise I’ll leave her as soon as my youngest graduates college.”
“How old is your youngest?”
“Three.”

- Differentiation of voices. This may be the most difficult, but it’s the best way. Readers should be able to tell from a sentence of dialogue which character is speaking because of the manner of speaking.

And finally, a tip on how not to replace dialogue tags: characters repeatedly calling each other by name. In natural conversation, we don’t call each other by name every other sentence. We know who we’re speaking to.
“Bill, is your wife not home?”
“No, Stella, she’s gone to her mother’s for the weekend.”
“Then let’s go, Bill.”
“Okay, Stella.”

“So that’s about everything I know about dialogue tags,” he pontificated wisely.

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Feb 1 2013

The politics of silence

It’s interesting how different readers react to the characters and events in Hannah’s Voice – either praising or being offended by how certain characters are portrayed. Some think I’ve written a Christian novel, or a novel that ridicules people of faith, or a conservative novel, or a novel that makes fun of people with conservative values or people with liberal values.

I didn’t write a political novel or a religious story. It’s a story about a little girl whose life gets caught in the crossfire of the adult world, and how she maintains her integrity and her childlike faith despite the dysfunction all around her. The innocence and forthrightness of childhood clash with the selfishness and guile of grown-ups.

Some of the various groups that interfere in Hannah’s life are portrayed – or at least were intended to be portrayed – at a level approaching absurdity. In the course of real world events, now that the book is published, it no longer seems so absurd.

I’ve found it mildly amusing that some readers have picked up on the portrayal of one group, but not another. The story contains some deluded religious fanatics. A couple of readers have said they liked how those ‘fundamentalists’ are portrayed. Another thought it was going to be yet another novel that presents a distorted negative stereotype of Christians. But the story also contains sympathetic, even heroic, characters of faith, and bumbling, dishonest left-wing ideologues. There are reactionary forces, political and religious, at both extremes, each of which displays hate and intolerance toward the other side for trying to impose their beliefs, while they are also trying to impose their beliefs.

Other institutions get the same treatment as well, such as the news media, public school administrators, psychologists and counselors, social workers, and the foster care system. There are rigid bureaucrats and loving foster parents; journalism vultures and an ambitious but compassionate news anchor; incompetent administrators and devoted teachers and nurses.

The characters with big hearts and actions to match are from all walks of life, just as the deluded fanatics are.

Isn’t that how real life is?

Hannah, however, is silent. She doesn’t try to impose anything on anyone. She just wants to live her life. She maintains her faith, but she certainly doesn’t hold herself up as perfect. In fact, she breaks one of the Ten Commandments in the opening lines of the novel.

So what is Hannah’s political viewpoint? She’s six years old when the story begins. She has no political views. She just wants to be left alone. She doesn’t want to be the center of attention. She wants to be understood and believed when she speaks. When she has nothing to say, she wants to be ignored. She wants to be with her family. She wants to live her life and her faith without interference and without the meddling of those whose intentions are infused with personal agendas.

If Hannah spoke, she might say “Don’t tread on me,” rather than, “It takes a village.” In Hannah’s case, it’s a village full of idiots – idiots of all political ideologies, occupations, and religious beliefs who think they are the sole owners of revealed truth.

Perhaps Hannah is a libertarian.

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Jan 5 2013

Why are verbs so tense?

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I’ve heard that mixing “ing” and “ed” verbs in a sentence is wrong. But isn’t this is the grammatically correct way to describe when a second action takes place within the time frame of another past tense action? – Ben H. Hugh

What verb forms should you use when a sentence contains two actions? It depends. How’s that for an answer?

There are lots of variables, and verb tense gives writers and editors fits. I see it done incorrectly all the time on work I edit. I also mess it up in my writing until I go back and edit myself, or my editor catches it.

There are two basic ways in which multiple actions occur in the same sentence. Either sequential (one thing then the other) or simultaneous (both things happen at the same time).

Sequential actions—a character does one thing and then does another thing:

He drove home and cooked dinner. [Correct. Don't use the -ing verb]

Driving home, he cooked dinner. [Wrong, unless he's cooking dinner in the car while driving.] 

Simultaneous actions—a character does two things at the same time:

He drove home, thinking of her. [Correct. The -ing verb shows the two actions happen at the same time]

It can get slightly more complicated if the two actions are done by two different characters.

She walked down the beach, the sun shining on her face. [Correct. The two actions are happening at the same time]

You could break it into two separate actions and it will be just as clear.

She walked down the beach. The sun shone on her face.

You can also use one of those timing words such as then, as, or while to indicate timing of actions. Sometimes one of these is necessary, but they can be cumbersome, so don’t overuse them:

As he drove home, he thought of her.

He drove home then cooked dinner.

She walked down the beach, while the sun shone on her face.

A problem shows up if the actions are sequential, but written as simultaneous, like the example above about the guy driving and cooking dinner at the same time. It’s not always that obvious:

She walked down the beach, going for a swim. [Wrong. She didn’t walk on the beach and swim at the same time.

She walked down the beach and went for a swim. [Correct.]

Another problem comes in with the famous dangling participle:

Walking down the beach, the sun shone on her face. [Wrong. The way this sentence is written, it means the sun was walking down the beach.]

You could say:

She walked down the beach, and the sun was shining in her face.

But that adds a passive ‘to be’ verb where it’s not needed and weakens the sentence.

Then there’s the past continuous tense, which pairs a ‘to be’ verb with an ‘ing’ verb. This indicates an action that was in progress over a period of time in the past. If writing in simple past tense (the standard for most fiction), the continuous tense indicates an ongoing action.

She was walking down the beach. [Shows an ongoing action; she started walking at some point in the past, and continued to walk for a period of time]

Why is it needed if ‘She walked down the beach’ is just as clear in context? The continuous tense gets used a lot when it’s not needed, even if technically correct.

But let’s get back to sentences with two actions. If you need to show a continuous action that started in the past and continues until the next action, you might need the past continuous verb tense:

She was walking down the beach when the assailant robbed her of her flip-flops.

This shows she was in the process of walking down the beach—she started walking before she was robbed, and she was still in the process of walking at the moment of the robbery. Sort of a mix of the sequential and simultaneous actions because one action took place over a period of time, then the second action occurred at a single moment in time while the first action was still happening.

Then there’s past perfect, which often uses ‘had’ with the -ed verb:

She had walked down the beach.

This shows she started the action in the past, and that action is now completed. It happened at a prior time, such as:

Every day this week, she had walked down the beach. Today it rained, so she stayed inside. [Note that this is all in past tense, even the current moment of 'today.']

The word ‘had’ makes it clear that this was a prior action that had been completed in the past. That, of course, gets confusing if you’re writing in past tense, because everything technically happened in the past. When writing in past tense, use the past perfect to indicate an action that was completed before the ‘present moment’ in the scene. It helps differentiate between the present moment written in past tense and an action that happened prior to the present moment.

To really get confusing, when ‘had’ is paired with a ‘to be’ verb + an ‘ing’ verb, you’ve got the past continuous verb tense.

She had been walking down the beach.

This also refers to a prior time (maybe five minutes ago, maybe five years ago, doesn’t matter). But it shows a continuous or progressive, longer term action, something that started in the past, continued for a period of time, and was completed in the past. This verb tense works best when it leads to the next action or event.

Yesterday, she had been walking down the beach when the assailant robbed her.

This indicates that it happened at a time prior to the present moment in the story, not the current, live action scene in the story; that the walk was a progressive action that took up some amount of time; that the walk had finished before the current moment in the story; that the walk was still in progress when she was robbed. That’s packing a lot of information into two verb tenses.

The issue with these various verb tenses is that they get misused, or they’re used when not needed. They use extra words and pad the writing. My personal preference is more direct writing with as few words as possible (not that you can tell from this blog post). I like to reserve the more complex verb tenses for the times when they are truly needed.

To complicate matters even more, all these recommendations change slightly if you’re writing in present tense.

Remember that each verb tense has a specific use. Sometimes more than one tense can work, depending on exactly how you want to portray the actions to readers and the surrounding context. There are lots of ways to use them incorrectly, and there are ways that are technically correct, but tend to water down the prose, especially if used too frequently.


Dec 15 2012

Should I hire an agent or self-publish?

Which way should I publish? Should I try for an agent and a contract from a major publisher, or self-publish? I hear with self-publishing, I can get my book out to the public in a lot less time and I get to keep a larger percentage of the profits rather than share it with a publishing company and an agent? — This is a question I’ve received from several clients. I’ve also heard this question in writers’ groups, seen it on blogs, Facebook, and online writer communities. I’ve been down about each of these roads, so here’s my take on it.

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First, I would go in clear-eyed about ‘profits.’ These days, the average debut fiction author with an agent and a publishing contract gets an advance of less than $5000, which is paid out in three or four installments over a one- to two-year period from the point of signing the contract. That, of course, may be after you’ve spent a year or more writing the book and another year or two (or longer) editing, revising, querying agents, and eventually landing an agent, if you’re lucky enough and good enough to get one. Then the agent has to pitch it to publishers. For debut novelists, the agent is often not successful with that first book. The vast majority of debut authors who do land that contract don’t sell enough copies to earn back the meager advance. From the time you are offered a publishing contract, if you ever get that far, it will likely be 18 months to two years before your book is published.

So if you land an agent and a major publishing house contract, maybe you will have earned $1000 a year for your hard work on that novel. Then, if the book’s sales don’t cover the advance, there’s probably no second book deal from any publisher. Why would the publisher, or any other, take a chance on an author whose first book didn’t sell well? They’re looking for the next big thing, and it wasn’t you. So the agent eventually drops you.

The average self-published writer will sell less than 500 copies a year. Depending on pricing and whether it’s an eBook, in print, or both, maybe you earn a $1000 a year in royalties. But you’ll pay for cover design, the cost of any stock photos used on the cover, editing (assuming you hire an editor), formatting and uploading (unless you can do all this yourself), plus the set-up fees and printing costs from companies such as Create Space, Lightning Source or Lulu.

Whether self-pubbed or traditional, you’re going to shoulder all or most of the cost of marketing and promotion. One excellent and successful writer I know spent $10,000 on marketing her debut novel. It sold well and won awards, but she lost a few thousand dollars on it. Of course, her second novel starts at a much higher point with a readership base, benefiting from all the promotion of the first book. So it may pay off in the long run, if you’ve got that kind of cash to invest and can consistently write a new award-winning novel every year.

There are also a wide range of middle ground publishers. These run the gamut from traditional small presses (often aimed at the literary market), to self-publishing assistance (for a fee and/or a percent of profits), to writer co-ops, to small digital publishers and niche publishers of all sorts. And there are still the old-school vanity presses that are always finding new ways to play on the hopes and dreams of naive writers.

Yeah, we all see the Rowlings and the Pattersons and the Meyers, the Stephen Kings and the John Grishams, but for every one of those, there are a few hundred thousand writers trying to break in.

So that’s all the gloom and doom. Now back to the question. If you’re still interested in writing, and you’re still interested in people reading and enjoying the fruits of your passionate labor, you’ll put all that aside and concentrate on the art and craft of writing compelling fiction. Then you’ll research all the various markets and methods to get your work in front of an audience.

You need to figure out which one suits you and your temperament and your knowledge/expertise. No one can answer that question for you, and there isn’t a “this is the best way to get published” response.

Ask yourself, with brutal honesty, if you have a book that agents and major publishing companies will be clamoring for? There are books with strong commercial potential. Agents and major publishers are constantly on the lookout for great stories. Is yours one of them? But remember that most agents sign a tiny fraction of one percent (1 out of 10,000 or less, according to some agents’ blogs) of the query letters they receive from new writers.

Ask yourself if you have what it takes to be a self-published author and handle everything yourself as a writer and publisher and business person and a marketer, and if you can consistently put out top quality products all on your own (plus whatever professional help you have to hire). Do you have the money to invest, knowing it might or might not ever pay off? Sometimes lightning strikes, and a self-published author hits it big or captures the attention of a major publisher. Just remember that these instances are extraordinarily rare. Don’t make that your plan and take out a second mortgage based on that happening.

Would you feel more comfortable with a small press or digital publisher? Is there a niche publisher that fits your book and your potential audience? Do a lot of hard research in this area, and talk to a lot of writers who have used a particular publisher before you sign with one. There are great ones, and there are scam artists galore more than happy to part you from your money. Have an attorney review any contract before you sign anything. Search the Internet for reviews and comments and complaints about any publisher you’re considering.

The bottom line is that you can’t count on a bottom line. There are pros and cons to every possible avenue to publication. Each writer has to sort through it all and find the best fit.

Figure out which is the best way for you to build a readership audience and reach people with your books rather than trying to figure out which way will provide the largest profit.

It’s perfectly fine to dream big, but act with optimistic yet cautious realism, and spend more energy writing your next novel than calculating your potential profits.

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Nov 12 2012

Cart? Horse? When to hire an editor

Here’s some unsolicited advice from an editor to writers. I’ll start with a message I receive way too frequently (a composite paraphrase of multiple emails here):”Dear Robb, I found your website (or were referred to you). I have spent the past 6 months (or year, or 5 years) writing my first novel. It is a 150,000-word epic saga, the first of a planned trilogy. I have decided to self-publish, and have set a launch date, have a book-signing event set up, ads on Facebook promoting the upcoming debut, and the cover art designed. The launch date is set for the first of next month. Would you be able to edit my manuscript by next week?”

Um. No. Cart? Horse?

If you spend six months or six years writing a novel, plan for the editing and revision process too. Make sure you have completed the editing and revisions, and that you’ve had a thorough final proofread done and complete before you announce a launch date or start submitting to agents and publishers. If you’re self-publishing, you’re setting your own deadlines. Why set it up so that you don’t have adequate time for revisions and editing?

An editor may be booked up with work for weeks in advance. So you’re out scrambling to find an editor who happens to have an opening next week. Hmmm. An editor with no work on his schedule? It happens to all of us at times, but any editor who has been doing it for a while and has a good track record probably isn’t sitting around hoping a new customer walks in the door because they have no project scheduled for next week.

Once the editor begins works on your manuscript, how rushed do you want him or her to be? Or do you want your editor to take his time and be thorough? Allow your editor at least a month to spend on it. At 150,000 words, maybe two months.

When the edits have been completed, how much time do you think you should spend going through those edits? A day? A day and a half? Maybe you should plan on at least another month to make the edits and revisions. Maybe you’ll have questions for your editor and will need to have conversations back and forth to figure out the best solution for a particular issue. Maybe you need to plan for more than one edit of your manuscript with a series of revisions to be made.

Why the rush? You’ve spent hours and weeks and months and maybe years to craft your story. Take your time with the editing process and put out a product you will be proud of and readers will enjoy.
There’s no benefit to publishing it a month or two earlier rather than a month or two later, especially if your book is considerably better a month or two (or six) later.Take a breath. Horse. Cart.

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Jun 10 2012

Using flashbacks

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I’m wrestling with flashbacks. Do they confuse the reader (as they often do in films)? Do they interrupt the narrative flow and annoy the reader? Do writers only do it because it can be fun? Is it best to avoid flashbacks? —Anonymous

I like flashbacks—as a reader—if done well. But there are lots of ways to go wrong with them.

A flashback is when the main story stops, the new scene starts from an earlier time (the day before or fifty years earlier, doesn’t matter), and a ‘live action scene’ is shown from that previous time.

The advantage flashbacks have is you can start the story where it needs to start, not at the very beginning, but in the middle of things. Dive right in. You can fill in the back story gradually.

Flashbacks are one way to fill in back story. Filling in back story gradually can be better than beginning the story at a much earlier point and going forward for several chapters to fill in the back story in a chronological fashion until things eventually get interesting.

Some of the problems I see with flashbacks in editing (and I’ve done all of these at one time or another, often more than once):
— Too many flashbacks. Like anything, use sparingly.
— Too long flashbacks. Shorter is usually better. Drop into a flashback and stay there too long, and readers can lose the main narrative. That means you can lose the readers.
— Unclear flashbacks, going in or coming out. Add signals so the reader knows when the story slips into a flashback and a clear signal when the story returns to the main story timeframe. Don’t confuse your reader.
— Flashbacks that reveal nothing important to the story. Flashbacks need serve a specific purpose. They exist to drive the main story, fill a story gap, reveal character motivation, or something relevant to the main story. Don’t throw in a flashback because you think, “Here’s a really interesting scene I thought up about something the character did twenty years earlier.” The main test here is the question: If this flashback wasn’t in the story, would readers even notice? Is the main story incomplete without it?
— Flashbacks at the wrong time. Use a flashback at precisely the point where readers need to know about that earlier event. That doesn’t always mean immediately adjacent to some important, related event. You might want the back story info planted in the reader’s mind earlier, so when an event happens later, the back story is already known. You might want to reveal the back story at a later point, after the related event happens to give readers that ‘ah ha!’ moment. But make sure the flashback blends with the scenes immediately preceding and following. Otherwise, it can have a jerky feel, and can seem like the writer is telling the reader, ‘Okay, I’m stopping the story here to take you back in time to show you a scene from the past for no particular reason,’ even if the reason becomes apparent later.

There are other methods to fill in back story, so don’t just rely on flashbacks. The back story event can be filtered into the main, live story without dropping back in time and re-creating the full scene. A character might stumble upon a letter from her grandmother stuffed in a box in the attic (the letter was stuffed in a box, not the grandmother). In the live scene, the character sits in the attic with the box and reads the letter, but the scene never leaves the character in the attic.

Back story can be filtered into the main story as a character remembers an earlier time, reads a newspaper clipping, reminisces with a friend, or countless other ways. But an occasional, well-done flashback can be a great way to make these ‘previous moments’ more dynamic.

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Jun 5 2012

Desert short story trilogy released

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The Sonoran Desert in the American Southwest is a place of extremes and contrasts, of beauty and death, of independent spirits and lost souls, of fresh starts and exiles.

SONORAN DREAMS: Three Short Stories from Exile, published June 2012 by fiction writer Robb Grindstaff of Phoenix, Arizona, is a collection of stories in three different genres, all set in the Arizona desert, each featuring characters in exile of one form or another.

Available now in all e-book formats, currently on Amazon for Kindle SmashwordsBarnes & Noble for the Nook, Kobo, and soon on Apple iBooks.

 The trilogy features the award-winning horror story, Desert Rain, selected by readers and editors of Horror Bound magazine for its ‘Best of 2008-2012′ collection.

 

SYNOPSES
Cordelia lives alone in a shack miles from civilization, somewhere no one can find her except for a very determined suitor. Raymond shows up every twelve years to consummate his marriage to the bride he’d claimed at her birth. Every twelve years, Cordelia fends off his unwanted advances—by killing him. The smell of death precedes his arrival each time, unless the sweet scent of a freshly fallen DESERT RAIN masks his approach.

Denny has lost everything in the recession. His business. His Scottsdale home on the side of a mountain with swimming pool and four-car garage. His ambition. His wife. With nothing left to lose but his sanity, his life, or maybe his injured foot, he heads out on a hundred-mile DESERT WALK in search of Hope.

When the sun goes down and the scorching heat cools to an uncomfortable swelter, bored teenagers gather to spend the DESERT NIGHTS out by the power lines, drinking beer, hooking up, arguing over the best rock bands of all time. Maybe shoot at some rattlesnakes and jackrabbits. Nothing could possibly go wrong here.

WHAT OTHERS ARE SAYING
“Robb Grindstaff is a master storyteller!” —Maria Grazia, editor, Horror Bound Magazine

“I don’t think there is any genre Robb Grindstaff can’t conquer. Some writers excel at characterization, others at plot, and still others are best known for their unique prose style. Robb is a triple threat, and any book with his name on it is bound to be a great read. —S.P. Miskowski, author of Knock Knock

Robb Grindstaff has a wicked sense of humor, a keen eye on the human psyche, and impeccable timing. His prose crackles and doesn’t waste a syllable. These stories turn the desert Southwest of Cormac McCarthy into a carnival funhouse.” —Pete Morin, author, Diary of a Small Fish

“Robb’s talent for creating real-life characters and bringing us into their lives is extraordinary, but what marks him apart from so many others writing today is how American his voice is—Robb’s writing amuses, charms and yet, when you least expect it, can still challenge and shock.” —Alexander McNabb, author, Olives: A Violent Romance

“Robb Grindstaff’s seamlessly written stories are full of strong characters, rendered with wit and subtlety. Stories unfold gently, judgments are never made, and the reader is left with a story that resonates long after the book is closed. His writing reminds me of John Irving (The World According to Garp; A Prayer for Owen Meany). ” —Phillipa Fioretti, author, The Book of Love

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
After a career in newspaper journalism and management took him from Arizona to North Carolina, Texas to Washington, D.C., plus five years in Asia and around the world, Grindstaff returned to the desert, where he now writes and edits fiction full-time.

He has two completed novels in preparation for publication while writing his third and fourth. His short stories have appeared in various anthologies, print magazines and e-zines. His articles on the craft of writing fiction have published in magazines and websites in the U.S., Europe, and Australia.

His editing clients include traditionally published, agented, and high quality indie authors from the U.S., Europe, Australia, and the Middle East.

For more information, to request a review copy or an interview, or to inquire about book editing services, email robb@robbgrindstaff.com.


Mar 30 2012

Narrative arc: What the heck is it?

Have you ever had an agent, editor, or a reviewer say something like this about your novel?

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“This story has a weak (or non-existent) narrative arc.”
“While the characters are strong, the narrative arc did not maintain my interest.”
“The writing is solid, but the narrative arc is unclear and inconsistent.”

I have. And on many occasions, I’ve had to be the editor to say something along that line.

It’s easy to say that a story doesn’t have a strong narrative arc. It isn’t so easy to define and describe a narrative arc. It’s even harder to write a story with a strong narrative arc. I know how difficult it can be from my own experience as a writer.

Think of narrative arc as a bell curve. It starts at a point on the lower left hand side of a graph, rises in a curve to a peak, and then drops back down again. The standard narrative arc is often referred to in terms of the three-act play: a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Act one, the beginning, introduces the characters and sets the stage—the current situation. Then an inciting event sets the story into motion.

In act two, the main character must try to overcome the conflict presented by the inciting event. The character wants something, has a goal in mind. The conflict and tension of the story rise, and obstacles are thrown in the path of the character to prevent her from achieving her goal. The character faces these obstacles on her way to overcoming the conflict. The obstacles get bigger, more difficult, and the character may be on the verge of defeat or surrender. At this point, the character must make a critical decision or a moral choice that changes the direction of the story.

That decision leads to act three and results in two things: the climax to the story (the peak of the curve), and the character is profoundly changed in some way. The character finds the strength within and a method to overcome the conflict. The story questions are resolved and the character has changed from the person she was at the beginning of the story. Or, the character is defeated, fails to accomplish the goal, dies, or some other tragic ending, but even then, the character has changed is some way, for the better or worse.

A slightly more complex outline is the eight-point narrative arc, described by Nigel Watts in his book, Write a Novel and Get It Published. Merging these eight points with the three-act play formula would look something like this:

ACT ONE
1. Stasis – the current situation and characters in everyday life
2. Trigger – the inciting event that sets the plot in motion

ACT TWO
3. The quest – the trigger results in the character needing to accomplish some goal
4. Surprise – a series of events presents obstacles that make achieving the goal more difficult
5. Critical choice – the character must choose a particular path to confront the obstacles
6. Climax – the critical choice results in the climax of the story, the highest peak of tension

ACT THREE
7. Reversal – the consequences of the critical choice changes the status of the character
8. Resolution – the story ends at a new point of stasis, and the character is changed is some way

Note that the ‘typical’ three-act play structure in a novel does not usually break down neatly into equal sections of one-third each. Act one may be a single chapter or two. It can be longer, of course, but it may be contained in the first few pages. Likewise, act three might be fully contained in one or two chapters at the end.

Act two is the giant middle in which the story takes place. This is the toughest slog for any writer to execute, and this is where the narrative arc can fall apart. Does each scene add to the story: raise the stakes, increase tension, create obstacles, or show the character overcoming (or failing to overcome) an obstacle? Does the scene further a sub-plot that is inextricably tied to the main plot (a love interest, a personal or family issue that the character must deal with while also trying to save the world from aliens or her family farm from the tax collectors)?

Or, are new sub-plot elements created, new obstacles raised, or new characters introduced that have nothing to do with the main storyline? Does the main plot disappear for chapters at a time? Does the character go here and do something, go there and do something else, then go somewhere else and something completely different happens? Do all these events create a disjointed storyline that bounces hither and yon with no coherent narrative arc?

Each scene should lead to the next in a logical, coherent manner that advances the story. This proceeds until the obstacles and the conflict are overwhelming and it appears the character may fail unless she makes the right choice in her critical decision. Instead of ‘this happens, then that happens, then something else happens,’ the narrative arc will look like ‘this happens, which leads to that happening, which causes something else to happen.’

This doesn’t mean every scene has to be more dramatic than the one before it. Pacing in a novel is important. Readers need a slower, more sedate scene periodically to catch their breath. The character needs time between obstacles to review her journey and think about how to proceed, time for romantic interludes, times where things seem to be going right for the character just before BAM the next big thing happens. If you chart the scenes in a novel, it might look like a rising stock market over a period of time with a series of ups and downs, but on an overall rising path until the climax and the slow curve down during resolution and denouement.

If you think (or have been told) that your narrative arc is weak, try writing out a scene-by-scene outline of your current draft. See if the outline makes sense, if each scene advances the story in a logical way, or if there are scenes that veer off course and distract from the main storyline.

Your narrative arc should look like a bell curve, not a map of a suburban neighborhood full of circle drives, cul-de-sacs, and dead end roads.

For more resources:

Nigel Watt’s book, Write a Novel and Get It Published

Alan Rinzler, a renowned book editor, blogs about narrative arc.

The late, great Kurt Vonnegut Jr. talks about the shapes of stories here in a wonderful four-minute video.