6 Ways to Avoid Neutralizing Your Writing

It.

What a cute little, two-letter word. Small but mighty, it can mean everything yet nothing at all. A go-to word for authors of every classification, genre, style, size, platform, etc. of writing, it shows up everywhere like your shadow.

Using it in a sentence isn’t necessarily grammatically incorrect or unacceptable by any seemingly formidable literary entity (usually referred to as “they”) that makes rules that, for some strange reason, authors blindly follow.

However, it is a blah word. Using it in your prose often and frivolously creates vague, feeble writing that renders your compositions less enjoyable and/or effective.

 

#1. The Nebulous It

Dammit! The click of Carolyn Waterton’s Louboutin heels echoed down the hundred-year-old courthouse hallway. It was never a good sign when both the backwoods judge and hayseed prosecutor were late. It could shred what little confidence this fresh-out-of-Yale-Law attorney had. They’re probably swapping stories and smoking stogies on a dilapidated back porch somewhere in this Godforsaken town.

Here, each it refers to something different. The first one is vague, referring to nothing concrete, which is an acceptable form, i.e., “used to represent an inanimate thing understood, previously mentioned, about to be mentioned, or present in the immediate context).* (Sometimes called a dummy pronoun.) The second it relates to how the men’s lateness affects Carolyn.

Now, to be fair, the author used it correctly in both cases. However, forcing it to carry the burden of conveying sentence meaning rather than looking for a superior word or rewriting the passage to read accurately is settling for hamburger when you could have filet mignon.

Dammit! The click of Carolyn Waterton’s Louboutin heels echoed down the hundred-year-old courthouse hallway. Not good. Both the backwoods judge and hayseed prosecutor were late. Why not shred what little confidence this fresh-out-of-Yale-Law attorney has? They’re probably swapping stories and smoking stogies on a dilapidated back porch somewhere in this Godforsaken town.

See?

 

#2. The Because-It’s-There It

How does it wind up in writing over and over again? Because we like to use the ambiguous little pronoun in speech all the time. However, it doesn’t always translate well in written pose. (Tee-hee. See what I did there?)

 When Paula and Jade hid the wrecked car, it meant they hid evidence. 

vs.

 By hiding the wrecked car, Paula and Jade concealed evidence.

Much better.

 

#3. The Lazy It

Authors often forget readers are novel readers not mind readers. Writers assume their readers will know exactly who or what they’re referring to in the sentence (or the next one). “Yeah, I could rewrite it,” the I’d-Rather-Settle-For-Good-Instead-Of-Great Author said, shrugging her shoulders, “but why?”

The jury reached an agreement on the teacher’s penalty, but it took a long time.

Does it refer to the jury, agreement, or the decision-making process?

 The jury reached an agreement on the teacher’s penalty, but the process took a long time.

Much better.

 

#4. The Grammar No-No It

Connie was shy, but she kept it well-hidden.

The sentence doesn’t “sound” incorrect and isn’t confusing, right? However, if your work falls into the hands of a Grammar Nazi, you’re busted. It must refer to a noun, and shy is an adjective. Pronouns can only refer to nouns.

Connie kept her shyness well-hidden.

Take that, Grammar Nazis!

 

#5. The One-Is-Good, Many-Must-Be-Great It

A comprehensive, complicated benefit package encourages employees to ignore offerings no matter how rewarding as confusion breeds avoidance. However, it only takes a minute to ask your department head to clarify the company’s position on it before it is implemented into company policy and you enforce it (should you feel it your duty to do so).

Yes, this is an actual passage recently published in a non-fiction book on Human Resource policies. Wow! Five its in only one l-o-n-g sentence. Two serve as vague references (dummy pronouns), and three allude to the company’s benefit package (I think.). Yeah, it goes without saying: rewrite, Rewrite, REWRITE!

Confusing breeds avoidance. A comprehensive, complicated benefit package only encourages employees to ignore offerings, no matter how rewarding. Ask your department head to clarify the company’s position on the bundle before implementation and enforcement.

Honestly, I don’t know if we fixed any of the inherent perplexity, but we did get rid of the confusing its. Let’s call it a victory.

 

#6. The Dull It

It combined with is, was, or were at the beginning of a sentence is a pet peeve of mine.

It was dark as Victor stepped into the street and waited.

By placing the important information toward the end of the sentence, an author strips his/her prose of energy.

Victor stepped into the dark street and waited.

 

What its are acceptable?

The First-Draft It… Use the word whenever you want to ensure you keep your mind burning and churning to throw down your creative thoughts. You can go back later and fix the its up.

The Dialogue It… Use the word in there because that’s how we speak. One caveat: If your character is well-educated and/or a snotty person, he or she would probably not use it in their speech.

The Don’t-Bother It… Use the word when rewriting the sentence to eliminate it creates confusing instead of clarification.

Got it? (Sorry, I couldn’t control myself.)

Write on!

*Www.Dictionary.com

Keep Your Train of Thought On Track

Keeping your readers moving seamlessly through your book is a challenge every author faces. One element that helps ensure Joe and Jane Public stay with your story and logically connect to your ideas is transitions.

 

Transitions are the connectors, the bridges, the stepping stones that tell your readers what to do with the information you’re presenting.

They must be planned and relevant, or they stick out like files on a birthday cake.

Within a paragraph, transitions provide coherence: the sense that a paragraph has only one main idea.

Gene ordered his favorite meal at the taco stand. He grabbed the bag of food and took it home. He ate the tacos.

Although Jane Public could understand what is going on in Gene’s world, painting an engaging mental picture is difficult with the choppy, vague prose. This kind of writing encourages a reader to put the book down and never return. Not good. Not good at all.

With a few transitions and some beefed-up writing, Jane Public reads on.

Once the street vendor passed him the sack of tacos, Gene headed for his car. The first thing he did at home was plop the sack down on the coffee table and turn on the football game. His stomach growled. Unwrapping his favorite beef-and-bean fare, he then ate all five before the kickoff.

Transitions ensure Joe Public clearly understand your information and instruction.

Now what? Getting ahead and staying ahead of the game. Planning a strategy for managing your critical people is imperative. That includes both the project cheerleader and the project adversary. The project manager needs to plan for communication breakdowns, a significant activity. General guidelines suggest most of your time is spent in some form of communication.
vs.
Now what? First, getting ahead, and then staying ahead of the game. After all, planning a strategy for managing your critical people is imperative. Frequently, that includes both the project cheerleader and the project adversary. And finally, the project manager needs to plan for communication breakdowns, a singularly significant activity since general guidelines suggest most of your time is spent in some form of communication.

Between paragraphs, transitions let an author allude to the idea in the previous paragraph and then change or further enhance the idea in the next one. Again, with no paragraphs, the change appears abrupt or unrelated.

Many times, she’d thought about the legend of the ghost in the old inn. Charlotte didn’t believe in ghosts.
She jumped at the unexpected cold touch on her shoulder.

Not bad, but a minor rework—including a couple transitions—adds major oomph to the passage.

Although the legend of the ghost that lived in the old inn was creepy, Charlotte shrugged it off. She didn’t believe in ghosts.
Until she turned down the dusty hall and felt a cold touch on her shoulder.

Wow!

 

Does the same hold true for non-fiction paragraphs? You betcha!

Your business plan is the blueprint for how you plan to build a successful enterprise. Consider which people will have the greatest impact on your success.
If you need capital investment, investors will be your primary audience.
vs.
Your business plan is the blueprint for how you plan to build a successful enterprise. Consider which people will have the greatest impact on your success.
For example, if you need capital investment, investors will be your primary audience.

One more for kicks and giggles? Okay, if you insist…

Grady was sure he’d seen the suspect duck behind a BMW double-parked next to a UPS truck. No way was the jerk getting away.
Grady dodged several street barriers and delivery trucks to come up behind the man. The guy was gone. A bullet whizzed into the metal garbage can next to him. Grady ran for the safety of a doorway, searching the rooftops for the shooter. He stumbled into a pothole, twisting his ankle.
Great. Some detective I am. Glad his partner wasn’t here to see Grady trip over his two left feet.

Again, not bad but kind of snoozy. Enter transitions!

At first, Grady was sure he’d seen the suspect duck behind a BMW double-parked next to a UPS truck. No way was the jerk getting away.
But by the time Grady dodged several street barriers and delivery trucks to come up behind the man, the guy was gone. A bullet whizzed into the metal garbage can next to him. Grady ran for the safety of a doorway, searching the rooftops for the shooter. That’s when he stumbled into a pothole, twisting his ankle.
Great. Some detective I am. Certainly glad his partner wasn’t here to see Grady trip over his two left feet.

Click here for a printable list of transitions you can use to ensure readers follow your train of thought.

Write on!?

Energize Your Writing With Active Sentences

An editing pet peeve of mine is reading a sentence that could have been great, but the author settled for good enough. For example:

It was very dark as Victor stepped into the street and waited.
There are four types of alcoholics.
It was there that I stayed stretched out and longing for some time.
There were dangerous people milling around Red Square.
It is possible that Hope’s capture at the undercover exchange was inevitable.
This was obviously the tastefully decorated living room of a wealthy lawyer, banker, or CEO.
There will be millions of victims if the premier refuses to take a stand.
There could have been doubt before, but that was gone now.
It was worth the wait to see Slayer’s final show.
There wasn’t enough to prove Gabriel was in imminent danger.
There will be more suffering and death unless someone steps in to fund the program.

Nothing is grammatically wrong, but can you feel the weakness of each sentence? No? Compare it to an improved version.

Victor stepped into the dark street and waited.
I remained stretched out and longing for some time.
Four types of alcoholics exist.
Dangerous people milled about Red Square.
Hope’s capture at the undercover exchange was inevitable.
Obviously, a wealthy lawyer, banker, or CEO lived in the tastefully decorated living room.
If the premier refuses to take a stand, millions of victims may pay the ultimate price.
Any doubt had disappeared.
Slayer’s final show was well-worth the wait.
Gabriel was never in imminent danger.
Suffering and death will continue until someone steps in to fund the program.

See what I mean?

By placing the important information toward the end of the sentence, the author robbed the prose of energy.

Also, these beginnings are so vague and nebulous that you risk leaving your readers scratching their heads, doing the mental “huh?”

Expletive construction is fine during your first-draft effort.* Whatever it takes to get ideas out of your head and into the world. But once you type “The End,” engage your search function and look for these bad boys:

[table id=3 /]

When you find one, experiment with the sentence it contains to make a strong string of prose. Sometimes the fix is as easy as deleting the expletive and the relative pronoun that.

It was Jacob’s last statement that finally piqued Ann’s interest.
Jacob’s last statement that finally piqued Ann’s interest.

Other times, eliminate the expletive and that before beginning the sentence with the subject.

There are thousands of people across the globe that could launch nuclear war.
Thousands of people across the globe could launch nuclear war.

Often, after performing either fix, you can add intensity to the sentence by pumping up the verb and tightening the prose.

There were more than ten dozen roses in Alexandra’s office.
Over ten dozen roses blanketed Alexandra’s office.

“But, Annie, I just read a NYT bestseller author’s latest novel, and he starts a lot of his sentences like that. Why can’t I?”

He’s earned his writing chops. When you hit the bestseller lists with your books, you can start a lot of your sentences like that, too. Until then, let’s write energetically, shall we?

Write on!

 

*Expletive construction is acceptable in dialogue because most people speak that way.

Easy Ways to Remember Difficult Words

You’re kicking butt, editing your latest piece of writing excellence, when everything comes to a screeching halt. Affect? Effect? Hmm… Affect? Effect? Argh!!!

Instead of stopping your writing flow to jump on the Internet (for the fiftieth time) to look up which one it is, here’s an easy way to remember: RAVEN: Remember Affect Verb Effect Noun

Affect is an action verb that means to influence something. Effect is usually a noun that means something that was influenced. (It can also be used as a verb meaning to bring about, but that usage is rare.)

The dampness of the moors affected Cameron’s health.
The damaging effect of Kartooth’s close orbit around the sun meant death to all.

 

Here are a few more…

Farther vs. Further… Farther refers to physical distance. Further designates metaphorical or figurative distance.

“I can’t walk any farther in these heels!” Arianna groaned.
Without further proof, the DA had to dismiss the case.

Easy way to remember?  Far (physical distance) is in Farther.

 

Lay vs. Lie… Lay refers to someone or something being acted upon, such as being moved or being put down, by someone or something. Lie is used when someone or something is doing something.

[table id=2 /]

“Just lay the money on the end table and shove off, okay?”
“The doctor recommended I lie down after the procedure.”

Easy ways to remember?  If the verb place or put can be used in the sentence, use lay. For lie? “Rec-lie-n.”

 

Fewer vs. Less… Fewer is for items that can be counted—dresses, ideas, Reese’s Pieces. Less is for stuff that can’t be counted—love, time, furniture.

Fewer than fifty people voted against Jose.
Ann would settle for nothing less than unconditional love.

Easy ways to remember?  If you can make a plural of the item—dress vs. dresses—it’s countable. Use fewer. If not, use less.

 

Than vs. Then… Than is a conjunction used for comparison. Then is an adverb used for time.

Myra was lovelier today than yesterday.
First comes marriage, then comes seduction.

Easy way to remember? Comparisons are made using Than. Than and comparison both have the letter “a” in them. Then often shows time. Then and time both have the letter “e” in them.

 

Beside vs. Besides… Beside refers to being next to someone or something. Besides means in addition to or apart from. Also, as well or furthermore.

He rested beside the stream before heading out again.
“Who was at the party besides you and Frank,” Ann demanded.
Kent had more work to do. Besides, he wasn’t in the mood to party anyway.

Easy way to remember? If something is near the bed, it’s be[d]side it. (Remove the “d” and you have beside.)

 

Born vs. Borne… Born and borne are past tense forms of the verb to bear. Use born when referring to someone or something entering the world or as an activity. Use borne in every other instance.

Margaret was born in the back seat of their Chevy.
Born deaf, Alaina possessed astonishing musical talents.
Borne aloft by the winds, the balloon traveled for ten miles.

Easy way to remember? Babies and ideas enter the word small, and born is smaller than borne. Get it?

 

Which vs. That vs. Who… Which refers to things. That may refer to either things or people. Who refers to people but can be used for animals.

Kevin never watches movies which have subtitles.
The Outrageous Debutante is the book that he recommended.
Bailey, who always wants to play catch, brought Connie the ball.

Easy way to remember? If you can eliminate the word which and not change the sentence, use which (or leave it out). If throwing which out changes the meaning, use that instead. Also, use who when writing about people and that when writing about things.

 

Assure vs. Ensure vs. Insure… Assure is done to a person, group of people, or animal to remove doubt or anxiety. Ensure is done to guarantee an event or condition. Insure can be done to a person or thing but is reserved for limiting financial liability.

Thomas assured Paulina that he still loved her.
To ensure she’d be ready on time, Georgette did her makeup an hour earlier.
Fabio had no idea if he was insured against vampire damage.

Easy way to remember? Assure is for things that are alive. (Both begin with an a.)  Ensure and guarantee both end in e.

 

Irregardless vs. Regardless… People believe irregardless means regardless, but it doesn’t. In fact, irregardless isn’t a word. Don’t use it. Use regardless.

Regardless of her feelings toward him, Corrine knew she had to end the relationship.

Easy way to remember? Irregardless isn’t a word. Simple, eh?

 

Write on!

The Easy-Peasy, Lemon-Squeezy Guide to Types of Editing

Confused by all the names and types of editing out there? Me, too! So, to be helpful (and clear up the confusion in my head), here are the nitty-gritty basics about editing stages for fiction and non-fiction books alike.

 

Developmental Editing addresses a manuscript’s soul.

What is it? Developmental Editing (also known as structural editing, project editing, chapter-level editing, or book doctoring) focuses on big-picture items like organization, flow, market suitability, subject or plot execution, reading ease, pacing, characterization, point of view, and dialogue.

Who needs Developmental Editing? Writers that are:
• New to writing.
• Unfamiliar with the development of book-length works.
• Unsure if their idea is evolving correctly.
• Tired of critique partners and/or beta readers telling them the book/story isn’t working for them.
• Trying a new genre.
• Looking to develop a specific, signature style.
• Serious about succeeding as an author.

What does a Developmental Editor look for? Things like:
• Logical order, flow, and consistency
• Balanced structure and pacing
• Clear subject or plot development, i.e., ensure a compelling exposition, development, and resolution
• Interesting characters with clear and believable goals, motivations, and conflicts (GMCs)
• Effective content, organization, and presentation
• Overall marketability based on similar works

Best time to use a Developmental Editor? Upon completion of first draft.

How to save money on Developmental Editing? Have Developmental Editor review a book outline before first draft is completed.

Timing? Developmental Editing is extensive, encompassing, and time-intensive. Don’t be surprised if an editor requires four to six weeks for initial manuscript review. Timing after that depends upon subsequent drafts and reviews.

What to prepare for?
• Ego bruising
• Subject, story and/or plot thread redevelopment
• Additional research
• Character(s) redevelopment
• Rewriting, rewriting, and more rewriting
• Writing a whole new draft

Caution… Beware of a Developmental Editor that:
• Only gives positive feedback. Nobody’s writing is perfect. Nobody’s .
• Doesn’t offer to brainstorm and/or contribute to manuscript solutions.
• Rewrites large sections of manuscript themselves.

FYI: Don’t be afraid to question an editor’s judgment. Listen to what she/he has to say based on his/her professional expertise, consider the suggestion(s), and discuss it with the editor.  However, if the recommendation(s) chafes your creative juices, disregard it. Your manuscript is your story, and the final decision on any changes is yours.

 

Content Editing fine-tunes a manuscript’s soul.

What is it? Content Editing (also known as substantive editing) seeks to tweak a manuscript after an author finishes what she/he believes is the final draft.

Who needs Content Editing? Writers that are:
• Finished with a final draft.
• Confident that their story didn’t need a developmental editor.
• Ready to submit their manuscript to an agent or publishing house or begin the independent publishing process.
• Working with an agent or publisher interested in the manuscript but doesn’t feel it’s ready yet.
• Dealing with rejection by several agents and/or publishers.
• Independently published but are only receiving bad reviews.
• Competent with the development of book-length works.
• Looking for a second opinion or second pair of eyes after a Developmental Edit.
• Serious about succeeding as an author.

What does a Content Editor look for? Some same things a Developmental Editor does and a few more, like:
• Logical order, flow, and consistency
• Clear subject or plot development, i.e., ensure a compelling exposition, development, and resolution
• Balanced structure and pacing
• Content relevancy an
• Well-developed arguments
• Accurate and sensible presentation
Readability
• Story-thread resolution
• Resonating character arcs
• Carry-thru and fulfillment of goals, motivations, and conflicts (GMCs)
• Strong secondary characters
• Logic errors
• Head-hopping confusion
• Romance satisfaction (if applicable)
• Consistent world-building (if applicable)
• Red herrings and mystery satisfaction (if applicable)

Best time to use a Content Editor? After completing the final author draft (and if you haven’t used a Developmental Editor).

How to save money on Content Editing? Work closely with a Developmental Editor to produce a strong manuscript.

Timing? If you invested in Developmental Editing, the Content Editing stage should take two to three weeks. If you skipped Developmental Editing, count on four to six weeks for this stage.

What to prepare for?
• Ego bruising
• Scene and chapter reworks
• Order, flow, and/or presentation readjustments
• Main- and secondary-character fine-tuning
• Additional research

Caution… Beware of a Content Editor that:
• Suggests significant story changes that contradict the Developmental Editor (if used or if using a different editor for Content Editing).
• Only gives positive feedback. Nobody’s writing is perfect. Nobody’s.
• Rewrites large sections of manuscript.

FYI: Don’t be afraid to question an editor’s judgment. Listen to what she/he has to say based on his/her professional expertise, consider the suggestion(s), and discuss it with the editor.  However, if the recommendation(s) chafes your creative juices, disregard it. Your manuscript is your story, and the final decision on any changes is yours.

 

Line Editing improves a manuscript’s readability.

What is it? Line Editing (also known as stylistic editing or paragraph-level editing) strives to ensure things like syntax, word choice, phrasing, sentence structure, and showing vs. telling doesn’t prompt a reader to stop, question, and/or leave a manuscript before he or she wants to.

Who needs Line Editing? Writers that are:
• Interested in having a professional correct these types of items.
• Pursuing independent publishing. (Most traditional publishers prefer handling Line Editing in-house.)
• Serious about succeeding as an author.

What does a Line Editor look for? Things like:
• Preservation of author voice
• Effective rhythm and pulse of prose
• Clarity and flow of sentences and paragraphs
• Consistent style and format
• Awkward phrasing
• Word and phrase overuse
• Weak sentence construction and variety
• Odd word choices
• Ambiguities
• Too much telling and not enough showing
• Odd dialogue
• Clichés
• Copyrighted material permissions
• Information errors or inconsistencies
• Incorrect text references with in-book exhibits
• Incorrect historical expressions or references (if applicable)
• Lack of strong scene-ending hooks

Best time to use a Line Editor? After the Content Editing stage.

How to save money on Line Editing? Fix as many of these items before submitting manuscript to Line Editor.

Timing? Two to three weeks.

What to prepare for?
• Paragraph and sentence reworks
• Homework if copyrighted material permissions are missing
• Issues that can only be resolved by author

Caution… Beware of a Line Editor that:
• Doesn’t fix anything. Nobody’s writing is perfect. Nobody’s.
• Steps all over the author’s voice and/or style.
• Encourages a major rewrite.

FYI: Don’t be afraid to question an editor’s judgment. Listen to what she/he has to say based on his/her professional expertise, consider the suggestion(s), and discuss it with the editor.  However, if the recommendation(s) chafes your creative juices, disregard it. Your manuscript is your story, and the final decision on any changes is yours.

 

Copyediting targets a manuscript’s correctness and consistency.

What is it? Copyediting (also known as sentence-level editing) concentrates on fixing words and sentences instead of delving into the author’s expression. Sometimes, line editing and copyediting are combined into the same stage.

Who needs Copyediting? Writers that are:
• Interested in having a professional correct these types of items.
• Pursuing independent publishing. (Most traditional publishers prefer handling Copyediting in-house.)
• Serious about succeeding as an author.

What does a Copyeditor look for?
• Detail, description, and timeline consistency
• Correct grammar and punctuation
• Correct facts
• Typos

Best time to use a Copyeditor? After the Line Editing stage or after the Content Editing stage (if combining Line Editing and Copyediting into one stage).

How to save money on Copyediting? Fix as many of these items before submitting manuscript to Copyeditor.

Timing? One to two weeks.

What to prepare for?
• Minor reworks
• Issues that can only be resolved by author

Caution… Beware of a Copyeditor that:
• Doesn’t fix anything. Nobody’s writing is perfect. Nobody’s .
• Encourages a major rewrite.

 

Proofreading double-checks a manuscript’s publication-ready status.

What is it? Proofreading (also known as word-level editing and mechanical editing) examines some same items a Copyeditor does, but a Proofreader looks for hard-and-fast mistakes overlooked during the Copyedit.

Who needs Proofreading? Writers that are:
• Ready to publish their manuscript.
• Pursuing independent publishing. (Most traditional publishers prefer handling Proofreading in-house.)
• Serious about succeeding as an author.
• What does a Proofreader look for? Things like:
• Accurate table of contents
• Accurate index
• Accurate artwork placement
• Accurate cross-references
• Accurate and consistent headers, footers, page numbers, etc.
• Typos
• Repeated words next to each other
• Punctuation errors
• Capitalization errors
• Abbreviation errors
• Formatting errors

Best time to use a Proofreader? Before uploading manuscript to typesetter and/or book publishing site.

How to save money on Proofreading? Fix as many of these items before submitting manuscript to Proofreader.

Timing? One week.

What to be prepared for?
• Minor reworks
• Phrase, word, and punctuation changes

Caution… Beware of a Proofreader that:
• Doesn’t fix anything. Nobody’s manuscript is perfect. Nobody’s .
• Encourages rewrites.

Still not sure which type of editing is appropriate for your current work in progress? Drop me an email, and I’ll point you in the right direction.

Into? In To? Onto? On To? Argh!

Prepositions like into, in to, onto, and on to can drive writers crazy. Don’t worry. Correct usage is easy if you remember a few simple things.

Into, in to, onto, and on to are prepositions of direction, answering the question “where.” But not always.

 

Into starts a prepositional phrase that shows direction, movement, position, or transformation from one thing into another.

Cinderella stepped into her carriage.

Movement is to the interior of the carriage.

Cinderella’s carriage turned into a pumpkin after midnight.

The carriage transformed.

The remodeling project turned into a big mess.
Glynnis threw diced tomatoes into the salad.
Snow lingers well into June in the mountains.

Snow lingers how long? Well into June.

She went into business with her friend.

A phrasal verb… the meaning is not literal.

Jerry ran into an old friend at the auction.

A phrasal verb… the meaning is not literal.)

Often, into is interchangeable with in.

Put the old magazines in/intothe recycle bin.
The dog jumped in/into the pool.

Sometimes, into and in are not interchangeable. While in shows direction, it does not always mean movement from one thing to another as into does.

Is the dog still swimming in the pool?
Why was there more champagne in Lynette’s glass?

 

In + To act as a phrase. In is an adverb and to is a preposition. In is part of a phrasal verb, i.e., you need an adverb to complete the verb’s meaning.

Rachel dived in to rescue the struggling child.

Context suggests Rachel dived into water.

Rachel dived into the water to rescue the struggling child.
He walked in to the sound of applause.

Context suggests that he walked into a location.

He walked into the sound of applause.

 

Everyone at work chipped in to the fund for Donna’s baby shower.

But not

Everyone at work chipped into the fund for Donna’s baby shower.

 

Unsure whether to use in to or into? Say the sentence aloud. Hear which spelling/usage you need.

 

As a preposition, onto shows moving or placing “on top of.” Use it if you can add the word up before onto.

Dad climbed (up) onto the roof to retrieve the kitten.
Rodney shoved blame (up) his brother for not fixing the lawnmower.

 

Onto and the preposition on are often interchangeable.

Harry stepped on/onto the grass.
Crumbs fell on/onto the new carpet.

 

Sometimes, onto and on are not interchangeable because on means more than “on top of.”

She wrote on the book.

Meaning “in contact with,” but not

She wrote onto the book.

Meaning “wait”.

 

Hold on!

Meaning “wait”.

 

Onto and on to are not interchangeable.

She tossed the book onto (on) the desk.

But not

She tossed the book on to the desk.

 

The rain fell onto (on) the parched earth.

But not

The rain fell on to the parched earth.

 

The restaurant adds the tip onto the bill.

But not

The restaurant adds the tip on to the bill.

 

On + to act as a phrase. On is an adverb and to is a preposition. On is part of a phrasal verb. On to is casual in usage.

Pass the information about tax law changes on to your clients.

Or

Pass the information about the tax law changes to your clients.

 

We moved on to other matters.

But not

We moved onto other matters.

 

We’re having cocktails in the garden and moving on to the house for dinner.

But not

We’re having cocktails in the garden and moving onto the house for dinner.

Better

We’re having cocktails in the garden, and then we’ll have dinner in the house.

 

Sometimes context determines whether you should use onto or on to.

We drove onto the highway in the old truck.

Context suggests they got on the highway.

We drove on to the highway in the old truck.

Context suggests they drove until arriving at the highway. Then they did a different thing, e.g., pulled over for a rest stop, ate a meal, or checked the map and discovered they lost.

Unsure whether to use onto or on to? Say the sentence aloud. Hear which spelling/usage you need.

Easy peasy… lemon squeezy…

Write on!

How to Make Your Fictional Characters Seem Real

You overhear two people on a blind date, and the first few minutes of your conversation goes something like this…

“Hi, I’m Bubba.”

“Nice to meet you. I’m Whitney. Where are you originally from?”

“Birmingham, Alabama.”

“Oh, a gun-toting, God-fearing redneck that hates anybody that isn’t exactly like you, believes the War of Northern Aggression never ended, and is currently going through a divorce from your cousin. Let me guess… you’re gonna order country-fried steak. Am I right?”

“Right on all fronts, Karen! And where are you from?”

“New York City.”

“Ah… So, you’ll be ordering pizza or a bagel. I’m assuming you live on a trust fund your daddy set up so you can shop seven days a week, right? What’s more… You don’t know how to drive because you’ve taken cabs all your life.”

“Wow! It’s like you know me already!”

Talk about two boring, boring, BORING characters…

Adding depth to your characters adds depth to your story.

When you rely on the surface-layer of a stereotype to say what you need, the approach falls flat and readers get bored. For example, a protagonist that’s a control freak and a Republican and an antagonist that’s a hippie and a Democrat will only take your story so far.

Stereotypes exist, and they’re easy to use because they’re familiar and recognizable. But they aren’t interesting. No surprise. No mystery. Blah.

Don’t paint yourself into a corner by relying on stereotype. 

Too often, after establishing your formulaic character, you drop the stereotype (without a believable and compelling reason) to fulfill what you need your characters to do to move the story forward.

For example: Carolyn is a Republican control freak who likes her world clean and organized. But when she foregoes a boutique hotel stay (where things are guaranteed to be clean and organized) to stay with Peace, a Democrat hippie and in his mess of an apartment filled with 15 rescued dogs, cats, and birds, Carolyn loses creditability with the author and the reader.

Don’t confuse stereotypes and archetypes. 

The term stereotype denotes a societal-accepted generalization about a specific collection of people that oversimplifies their qualities into predictable or clichéd types. Think jocks (stupid), redneck (gun-lovers) and Germans (Nazis).

An archetype is an original pattern or model for a type. Think willing hero (Lee Child’s Jack Reacher), seductress (Margaret Mitchell’s Scarlett O’Hara), and free spirit (Jane Austen’s Emma).

An archetype uses the type of person as a starting place for a memorable character. A stereotype uses it as the end point.

Know your characters inside and out.

Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, knowing your characters—main, secondary, and tertiary—inside and out aids the writing process immensely.

Once you’ve set on a character and have a basis for his/her existence, i.e., hero, villain, antihero, sidekick, mentor, etc., time to add the bells and whistles.

  • Physical Description: A basic mental picture of each character gives you a handle of how you want him/her to appear to your readers and can help you develop character attractions and interactions.
  • Personality Type: Cardboard characters are boring. Add spice and flavor to your characters by giving them interesting traits and mindsets that make your readers care.
  • Strengths and Weaknesses:  These attributes ensure your story arc has somewhere to go that’s semi-realistic (We’re writing fiction, after all.), believable, and endearing. These simple answers help you challenge your characters and make them shine.
  • Goal, Motivation, and Conflict (GMC): Goal… What must he/she have or be? This drives your story forward. Motivation… Why does he/she want that? This depends on her goal. Conflict… What/who blocks him/her from him/her goal? What’s his/her skin in the game? (Hint: Don’t settle for the first answer to each question. Dig deeper.)
  • Backstory: Each of us are who we are because of where we’re from, how we’ve lived, what we’ve seen, what we’ve experienced, what we’ve gained, what we’ve lost, etc. 90% of the information you develop for each character will not directly become part of the story you tell your readers, but knowing these elements makes writing your characters and their thoughts and actions easier.
  • Tics, expressions, rituals, habits, quirks, etc.: Items like these make your characters appear human and give them their own voices and personalities. But don’t overload a character with too many. Pick one and run with it.

Now, go forth and envision some incredibly interesting characters.

Write on!

5 Ways to Kill A Sentence

“Great story, but I had a hard time reading it.” “Incredible concept, but your writing didn’t jump off the page.” “A compelling plot, but the style throughout was flat.” But… but… but…

Tired of hearing this about your novel? Maybe you’re guilty of a sentence crime.

It happens every day in some part of the world, a poor, defenseless sentence becomes the unwilling victim of a homicide. Hit and run. Voluntary manslaughter. Murder.

The saddest thing? Often times the killer is unaware a crime has been committed and continues about his or her fiction writing, unable to stop committing the crime again, again, and again.

Here are the top five:

Write a Weak Sentence

A writer afraid to commit to the writing, unwilling to take a risk with his/her thoughts and prose, kills a sentence by decorating a wimpy verb. Instead of a stronger one to suit the character’s intended action, the killer simply places an intensifier like very, so, suddenly, or extremely in front of the wimpy verb. The result? A weaken sentence impact. Life is literally sucked from the prose.

Major Green opened the door very fast.
vs.
Major Green flung open the door.

 

Write a Boring Sentence

A writer who writes with only personal pleasure in mind kills the sentence by downplaying action. Instead of grabbing hold of the prose and committing to strong, aggressive writing, the killer’s passive approach bleeds onto the page as passive voice. The result? An awkward, wordy, and generally vague sentence.

Tragically, hundreds of lives were lost when the mountain was hit by the plane.
vs.
Tragically, hundreds of people died when the plane slammed into the mountain.

 

Write a Formal Sentence

A writer who tries to impress everyone with intellect and/or who hopes to intrigue a reader so much it sweeps him/her into the story kills a sentence by being a classic-literature wannabe. Instead of trusting his/her personal writing style and voice, the killer tries channeling—and fails miserably—classic literature giants. The result? A sentence that’s comical (probably not the writer’s intention). (Thanks to our buddy at www.necronomi.com for this example.)

Her pansy cheeks blushed a deeper shade of rose as I spoke to her, and she cast down her violet eyes and covered her soft, petal-pink lips with a slender, lily-like hand—she was a natural wallflower, after all, and green at the art of flirtation.
vs.
Cheeks blushed, she lowered violet eyes and covered tender lips with her delicate hand. She was a beautiful wallflower, unskilled in flirtation.

 

Write an Overweight Sentence

A writer who rushes thoughts and/or beats around the bush because he/she is unsure where the story needs to go kills a sentence by creating a long, boring string of words. Instead of writing so readers can experience a scene emotionally, the killer uses long, flat descriptions. The result? A sentence that readers often skip because it looks too much like a grocery list.

Paul wore a green and red plaid threadbare shirt with a missing button at the cuff and a pair of frayed black jeans torn below the knee.
vs.
Paul wore Goodwill rejects.

(This could be the first time Paul shows up in the novel. That’s when most grocery-list descriptions occur.)
 

Write an Unclear Sentence

A writer indifferent to the reader and lack passion for his/her story and/or words kills a sentence by forgetting transitions. Instead of keeping the reader moving from one idea to the next, the killer drones on, assuming the reader will figure it out. The result? A sentence that leaves the reader clueless regarding time and plot flow. (This occurs often in a synopsis, back-cover copy, and/or book blurb.)

Gerald discovers Ramona is the power behind Mountain Watch, the environmental activist group protesting Emerald Point. He tries to get to know her. He devises a strategy to overcome her opposition. Gerald believes they’ve reached a compromise professionally and romantically. Ramona ups the ante. She publicly accuses him of killing his wife. To dispute the charges, he’s forced to dig into the death. He uncovers it wasn’t an accident. It was murder.
vs.
Gerald soon discovers Ramona is the power behind Mountain Watch, the environmental activist group protesting Emerald Point. He tries to get to know her in hopes of devising a strategy to overcome her opposition. Just when Gerald believes they’ve reached a compromise professionally as well as romantically, Ramona ups the ante and publicly accuses him of killing his wife. To dispute the charges, he’s forced to dig into the death and soon uncovers it wasn’t an accident. It was murder.

Stop the cycle of violence. Each and every sentence deserves to live to tell a tale. Only you can prevent this senseless crime. Won’t you… please?

Write on!

Grammar No-No’s That Aren’t (Necessarily…)

Attention Grammar Nazis, Ninjas, and Police. The following article may be too much for your purist hearts.
Show of hands… how many of you out there cringe when you see a sentence like this:

The gunman shoved a gun in Jenny’s face and ordered her to immediately open the safe.

Or one like this:

Dominick was certain this bimbo was not the one he’d left the bar with.

Or this:

However Pollyanna tried, she couldn’t get her mind off Darnell.

Or, finally, this:

Brady was tormented by memories of the accident.

Okay, my hands are up for all four.

So, what puts my grammar panties in a wad? Sentences that break grammar rules drilled into my head by my favorite English teacher, Mrs. Bruno. Here’s the crazy thing: Some of those rules were never rules in the first place, and others have changed over the years as the English language has changed.

No-No #1 That Isn’t… Split Infinitives

The gunman shoved a gun in Jenny’s face and ordered her to immediately open the safe.

For the record, no authoritative grammar and usage text exists that forbids split infinitives. However, most readers (especially those over 40 years old) stumble over split infinitives because they were taught such constructions are a grammar no-no. If your goal is to ensure your reader stays focuses on your story and not your writing, we suggest you fix the split.

The gunman shoved a gun in Jenny’s face and ordered her to open the safe immediately.

If you have to mangle a sentence to avoid a split infinitive, DON’T.

Awkward: To rescue the hostages, SWAT decided brazenly to raid the plane.
Better: To rescue the hostages, SWAT decided to brazenly raid the plain.

 

No-No #2 That Isn’t… Ending A Sentence With A Preposition

Dominick was certain this bimbo was not the one he’d left the bar with.

A Southerner stopped a stranger on the Harvard campus and asked, “Could you please tell me where the library is at?” The stranger responded, “Educated people never end their sentences with a preposition.” The overly polite Southerner then apologetically repeated himself: “Could you please tell me where the library is at, you big jerk?”

Blame crazy, annoying Romans for this one. High-school Latin taught us a preposition cannot come after its target word. Somehow, grammarians before us migrated the rule into the English language and gave us all something to fight about for centuries.

If your goal as a fiction writer is to write cleanly and seamlessly and avoid pulling your reader out of the story, consider rewriting the sentence.

Dominick was certain he’d not left the bar with this bimbo.

If you have to mangle a sentence to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition, DON’T.

Awkward: Officials for the beauty pageant still must decide with whom the contestants will meet.
Better: Officials for the beauty pageant still must decide whom the contestants will be allowed to meet with.

 

No-No #3 That Isn’t… Starting A Sentence With However, Hopefully, or Because

However Pollyanna tried, she couldn’t get her mind off Darnell.

Where this rule came from no one seems to know, but most writers cite Struck and White’s The Elements of Style. However, Masters William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White only caution writers not to start a sentence with however when you mean nevertheless.

However is a conjunctive adverb. Without a comma, it means in whatever manner or to what extent. With a comma, it means nevertheless.

However Pollyanna tried, she couldn’t get her mind off Darnell.
Pollyanna couldn’t get her mind off Darnell. However, she wasn’t trying hard enough.

What about hopefully or because? Hopefully is an adverb meaning it is hoped (that). Without a comma, it means a moderate amount of hope. With a comma, it means an extreme amount of hope.

Hopefully CatyAnn’s husband would arrive soon.
Hopefully, CatyAnn’s husband was alive.

Because is a subordinating conjunction meaning for the reason that or since. It’s okay as a sentence starter as long as you include the main clause later in the sentence.

Because no one believed Steve was gone, no one reported him missing.

What about starting sentences with coordinating conjunctions like for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so? No problem here as long as you make sure to include the main clause the word refers to either in the preceding sentence or later in the same sentence.

Incorrect: And smart, too.
Correct: She was a nice girl. And smart, too.

Simply follow with a comma? No, unless there’s an aside that needs one.

Incorrect: And she loved her job.
Correct: And, despite the extra work, she loved her job.

 

Incorrect: Yet, Inez stripped down and dove in anyway.
Correct: Tuesday night was frigid, with the wind whipping off the surf. Yet, Inez stripped down and dove into the water anyway.

 

No-No #4 That Isn’t… Passive Voice

Brady was tormented by memories of the accident.

Passive voice is not grammatically wrong. I repeat: passive voice is not grammatically wrong. However, it is grammatically boring. Why? Because the subject of a passive sentence is stagnant, waiting for someone or something to act upon it. It’s not making things happen. It’s passive. Boring.

Commercial fiction editors tell us they view passive voice as passive writing bleeding onto the page. They see an author unwilling to grab hold of their prose and commit to producing strong, aggressive writing.

If you want your reader to stay interested in your story, stay involved in what your character is going through, rewrite the sentence.

Memories of the accident tormented Brady.

If you have to mangle a sentence to avoid passive voice, DON’T.

The body was riddled with bullet holes.

Passive voice, but much more interesting as emphasis is on the body receiving the action. The writer’s goal is to take away personhood in this grim, impersonal description. The reader gets a sense of isolation, sadness, and tragedy.

Somebody shot the body full of bullets.

Active voice, but a dead sentence (pun intended).

For an in-depth look at passive voice, click here.

 

But What About Dialog?

Misuse of grammar rules (or supposed grammar rules) is perfectly acceptable in dialog if it fits your character’s personality and background. If. It. Fits. Your. Character. Got it?

Write on!

Right Word = Right Image = Right Emotion

You wrote the book of your heart, the novel that you dreamed about writing since you were ten. You know the one. The manuscript that poured out of your soul onto the page like it was dictated by God. Your family and your critique partners said it was the best book they ever read. You even placed in a few contests. So, you published that baby knowing that once the world fell in love with it, too, Oprah would select your novel for her reading club.

Except…

Reader reviews say the characters are dull and unlikeable, the story lacks depth and dramatic tension, and the writing fails to jump off the page and engage the reader.

So, babe, how do you feel? Angry? Irritated? Enraged? Incensed? Annoyed? Galled? Pissed? Infuriated? Vexed?

Maybe you’re disappointed? Baffled? Failed? Dumbfounded? Frustrated? Disillusioned? Puzzled? Thwarted?

Perhaps you’re distraught? Heartbroken? Anguished? Sad? Crushed? Despondent? Miserable? Depressed?

Actually, you could be any one (or more) of those. However, if you’re telling someone this story in an email or on a rant site on the Internet, your reader won’t comprehend exactly how you feel unless you pick the right words to convey the right image to invoke the right emotion.

This takes more than a spin through a thesaurus. It takes understanding that words may have similar meanings and yet different intensities.

Words have shades of meaning.

Think about the first set of emotions: irritated, annoyed, galled, vexed, incensed, pissed, infuriated, and enraged. They’re all synonyms for angry but–more importantly–they’re shades of angry. Think about it. Although we all have the basic feelings of happiness, anger, sadness, or fear, we actually feel different mixtures of these emotions at one time or another.

If you’re upset about reader reviews, saying you’re simply angry doesn’t tell the whole story, does it?

Angered by the review, Annie vowed to show those “stupid readers” who they were dealing with.

A basic statement of fact, but the reader has no real idea how Annie feels.

Irritated by the review, Annie vowed to show those “stupid readers” who they were dealing with.

This is not her first bad review, and she’s getting a bit discouraged.

Annoyed by the review, Annie vowed to show those “stupid readers” who they were dealing with.

This is her twelfth bad review, and she’s wondering what the problem is.

Galled by the review, Annie vowed to show those “stupid readers” who they were dealing with.

She’s wondering if should reply to one of the readers and point out two grammar errors in his comments.

Vexed by the review, Annie vowed to show those “stupid readers” who they were dealing with.

She’s wondering if she should ask Amazon to delete a few of those nasty reviews.

Incensed by the review, Annie vowed to show those “stupid readers” who they were dealing with.

She’s wondering if she should troll Facebook to find each nasty reviewer.

Pissed by the review, Annie vowed to show those “stupid readers” who they were dealing with.

She names the nasty readers on her Facebook page.

Infuriated by the review, Annie vowed to show those “stupid readers” who they were dealing with.

She actually creates a Facebook page called “Writers that Hate Stupid Readers.”

Enraged by the rejection, Annie vowed to show those “stupid readers” who they were dealing with.

She actually sends nasty emails to all less-than-five-star reviewers.

Think Paint Chips

One way to grasp shades of meaning is to think about the cards paint manufacturers provide that show the range of related paint colors.

Consider the next set of emotions we talked about earlier: baffled, failed, dumbfounded, frustrated, disillusioned, puzzled, and thwarted. These synonyms describe disappointed. Let’s put them in order from the weakest to the strongest, i.e., their shades of meaning:

failed

thwarted

frustrated

puzzled

disillusioned

dumbfounded

baffled

Enough with emotions. What about another noun, like problem? Synonyms for problem include difficulty, trouble, dilemma, obstacle, quandary, uncertainty, and issue. Let’s order them from weakest to strongest:

difficulty

uncertainty

dilemma

quandary

trouble

obstacle

issue

Okay, let’s try an action, like pretend. Synonyms for pretend include fool, feign, dupe, bluff, masquerade, deceive, and simulate. Ready to sort weakest to strongest? Go!

fool

bluff

dupe

feign

masquerade

simulate

deceive

Organize the words based on your background and experience.

This exercise helps you understand and appreciate how various shades of words can help you choose the right one for the right image to convey the right fiction picture to your reader.

Note to historical writers: You have the added challenge of using words that are time-period appropriate but not so obscure your reader gets confused and lost.

Every word matters. 

Every word carries a measure of meaning. Shades of meaning are subtle differences that can dramatically change how your reader perceives your writing and how your story is received.

Write on!