May 11 2017

Grindstaff Editing expands

Robb Grindstaff Editing is expanding with an eye on the future.

On occasion, we have had to turn down prospective editing clients because they weren’t ready for an editor. We point them in other directions and to resources where they can develop their craft of writing before they invest hard-earned money for editing services.

But far too often, we’ve had to turn down inquiries due to lack of time, prospective clients who are excellent writers or show exceptional potential. We can only edit so many novels each month, and manuscripts generally need more than one type of edit.

So I’m excited to bring on two sharp assistant editors with keen eyes for everything from plot problems to semicolon abuse. We will be able to offer at least two sets of eyes on every manuscript.

Meet the team:

Lauren Mckinnon
Lauren spent her high school years in Japan. She is a writer and editor with newspapers and online publications, and has edited novels for internationally published authors. She is finishing her degree in Public Policy with a minor in Communications, and has her eye on Notre Dame Law School.

Laura Oig
Laura is an editor and writer of speculative fiction. She was born in Canada, and currently resides in Denmark with her Danish husband. A literary omnivore, she is never without a book close at hand. She comes by that naturally as she is the daughter of Jonas Saul, author of the Sarah Roberts series.

Grindstaff Editing
We have been in business seven years, with sixty clients and more than 200 books edited, including fiction of all genres, and non-fiction such as memoirs, business, and self-help books.

Clients hail from the U.S., Canada, Australia, Europe, and the Middle East, and include authors with traditionally published books through major publishers, represented by top literary agencies, published through small presses and digital-first publishers, and dedicated, highly successful indie authors.

Most exciting, however, is helping a talented newcomer find his or her voice and polish a manuscript to stand out in a crowded, competitive marketplace.

Robb Grindstaff
Robb Grindstaff is the author of two novels, Hannah’s Voice and Carry Me Away, published by Evolved Publishing, plus a dozen published short stories. His articles on the craft of writing fiction have appeared in print and online writing publications. He and Australian author and writing coach Samantha Bond jointly teach writing courses for the Romance Writers of Australia.

Robb lives on a few acres in rural Wisconsin with his wife, dog, chickens, and assorted wildlife visitors.

Contact us:
Visit our website.

To inquire about editing services, email robb@robbgrindstaff.com.


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.

 


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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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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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.


Mar 26 2012

A POV question

I read the POV article on your site and I have a question. I am currently writing a novel in the first person POV. There is a conversation between my main character’s sister and his girlfriend toward the end of the story. I NEED the reader to know this information before my main character does. The reader needs to witness this conversation, if you will. How can I do this without switching POV to third since the entire novel is first person. It seems off to all of a sudden have a chapter that’s in the third person. Any help would be greatly appreciated.Michael Harrison Tennessee

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My first, instinctive reaction is that you may need to find a different way to approach the information. A sudden, unexpected shift in the voice from first person to third, and a shift to a new POV, this late in the story would most likely feel very jarring and yank the reader right out of the carefully crafted first-person narrative that you’ve created over the course of an entire novel. It might feel to readers as if the author wrote himself into a corner and had to resort to a different voice to get out of it.

So before deciding to switch to a different voice and POV, I’d look for other options. Is is absolutely critical for the reader to know the info before the main character? Is there a way that the MC can hear the info (so the reader hears it too) but the MC misunderstands it or doesn’t realize its significance, but readers will understand (the unreliable narrator approach)?

It’s tough to make any sensible recommendations without knowing the whole story, of course, so I’m pretty much shooting in the dark here. But the general idea of introducing a new POV and switching out of a first-person narrative late in the novel might, I’m afraid, feel like a cheap trick to readers. Introducing new information to the reader–which the first-person narrator doesn’t know–might feel a bit too much like the deus ex machina twist that makes readers feel cheated at the end.

I wish I could give a more positive recommendation or suggestion, but without knowing the whole story, I’m just not able to do more than suggest you avoid the late POV and voice switch.

Any readers out there have more suggestions?


Mar 11 2012

Never use an adverb!

If you’ve been writing fiction for more than a day, and have ever read a writers’ magazine, visited a writing website or blog, attended a writing critique group, or taken a college course in creative writing, you’ve probably heard this rule.

Here’s a good piece of advice: Anytime someone says ‘Always do this’ or ‘Never do that’ when it comes to writing, that’s a good time to tune them out. The only hard and fast rule to writing fiction: Never bore your reader.

But like many of these alleged rules and regulations for writers, there is a kernel of truth packed away underneath the prose fascist’s pronouncement.

Most of the time, these never-rules have morphed over time through misinterpretation, like the children’s game of gossip or telephone. What started as good advice to help keep novice writers from falling into the most common novice writer mistakes has transformed into dictatorial fiat by the literazis.

Adverbs are an easy place for novice, or even more experienced, writers to slip into lazy writing habits.

The problem is obvious in many beginning writers’ manuscripts. The problem isn’t that they’ve used an adverb. The problem is that they’ve never met an adverb they didn’t like. If a sentence feels flat—add an adverb! If one adverb is good, two must be better! There’s no adverb in this sentence—get one!

Adverbs aren’t wrong. They’re just weak. There is usually a better verb that conveys the image the writer wants to show, a verb that doesn’t need an adverb tacked on in an attempt to make a boring verb interesting. It’s like dressing a Chihuahua in doll clothes. Just get a more interesting dog, like a Basset hound or a Siberian husky or an Australian shepherd.

“I quickly ran home.”

Boring. Maybe “I sprinted home.” Or “I dashed home.” You’ve got dozens of choices more interesting than ‘ran’ that don’t need to be shoved into an adverb like Panchita into a Cabbage Patch dress.

One of the most common offenders of the ugly adverb syndrome is the dialog tag (he pontificated wisely). Dialog tags will be the subject of a blog post all to themselves in the near future, but if you’re adding an adverb onto your ‘said’ or ‘asked’ more than, oh, let’s say twice in a 100,000-word novel, you’re probably overdoing it. It sounds amateurish. Really, it does. Get over it.

“Wh-wh-what do you mean by that?” he stammered haltingly.

Is there any other way to stammer other than haltingly? In fact, why do you need to say ‘stammered’ since the dialog clearly shows th-th-the character stammering? You don’t. Lose it.

So when can you use an adverb? That’s easy.

When it’s right. When the adverbly verbed combination says exactly what you want to say, you’ve got the adverb in the right place for the right emphasis, and you’ve used them sparingly throughout your story. Adverbs, like adjectives, are a pungent spice. A little goes a long way. You can use them more than never, but less than distractingly, irritatingly, obnoxiously frequent.

And now a quick note on adverb placement for when you do use them—say, zero to twenty times per novel (okay, twenty-five if you’re writing an epic historical saga trilogy, or ninety-seven if you’re writing category romance or erotica). As a general rule, place the adverb closest to the word it modifies. This is especially true if it’s a complex sentence with two or more verbs or a prepositional phrase. Otherwise, you can change the meaning of the sentence. Consider these two sentences:

I nearly lost all of my money.

I lost nearly all of my money.

Example number one, nearly modifies lost. Something happened in which I came very close to losing all of my money, but thank goodness I didn’t lose it. I still have all of my money.

Example number two, nearly modifies all. Something happened in which I lost most, but not all, of my money.

Does the adverb go before or after the verb? Unless it changes the meaning, it doesn’t matter. Go with the one that sounds best. Putting the adverb first can change the emphasis of the sentence to the adverb.

Go boldly where no man has gone before.

Boldly go where no man has gone before.

Same meaning, different emphasis.

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It is acceptable to occasionally split infinitives.

It is occasionally acceptable to split infinitives.

The first one is the split infinitive, in case you were wondering, because the adverb comes between the two-word verb phrase ‘to split’.

So the next time someone tells you, “Never use an adverb,” remind them that ‘never’ is an adverb and they just used one.