Category Archives: style

Anne R. Allen on How to Kill Book Sales

book word in letterpress wood typeI’ve often found great advice on Anne’s site. This post about what readers are likely to find when they click on that “Look Inside” invitation on Amazon echoes one I recently did about the first page of your book and why it matters, except that Anne goes into more detail and offers excellent examples of how you can make your “Look Inside” sample sing.

I especially want to endorse Guidelines Nos. 2 and 3.

No. 2 tells us to “start with conflict, not crisis,” advice I’ve encountered before, and which has ranked up there as the most useful advice I’ve ever received. As Anne points out, who cares if bullets are flying and bombs are going off if we don’t know the characters and couldn’t care less about them. “What the reader wants is emotional conflict,” Anne writes. And you get that by putting characters together in a demanding situation and finding out what they do about it—basically Anne’s Guideline No. 5.

No. 3 tells us that any opening scene that consists of some character musing away about some off-stage event is a huge turn-off unless you have an incredible voice and a mesmerizing character. While we’d all like to think we can produce such prodigies of characterization and style at will, the evidence suggests otherwise. You don’t have to create a character worthy of the ages in a Nobel-prize-winning style if you place your readers at the heart of a conflict, right there, in the middle of it all.

So many books!

An additional turn-off I’d personally cite for “Look Inside” samples is more subjective: I respond to voice. Yes, I’ve got to have conflict; things have to happen for me in those first pages. But even if I’m thrown into the middle of conflict, a pedestrian voice stuffed with clichés and unimaginative or, for that matter, forced description can kill my buying urge. Lure me with a voice that breathes with the magic of  language used in new and illuminating ways. If you can’t, make your conflict mesmerizing and original. Ideally, do both.

So check out Anne’s list of ways to keep your first pages from killing your sale. What makes you put a book back on the Amazon shelf?

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Clauses and Conjunctions–Oh, My!

Ball of letters tangled, like grammar rules

“Grammar rules” can look like this!

I came across this nice post from Deborah Lee Luskin over at Live to Write—Write to Live that lays out the rules governing various kinds of clauses and the conjunctions that attach them to each other.

What this post supplies is “meta-knowledge”: knowledge ABOUT knowledge, that is, about the kind of knowledge writers need. We also need an inner grammar that allows us to construct functioning sentences instinctively in a language that is our native tongue. Growing up with a native tongue allows us to internalize the ways sentences work in our linguistic world. (When we learn second or third languages as adults, it takes a while to develop this internal grammar because our minds are pre-programmed to acquire grammar when we are very young, from listening to and interacting with those around us.)

This inner grammar serves us for speech, even if we don’t know “the rules” from book-learning—all the names of the things we’re doing. It functions less effectively for writing.

Why is this so?

First, writing is not a pre-programmed activity the way spoken language is. Writing is a LEARNED activity. Stanislas Dehaene argues in Reading in the Brain that vision and sound operate in different parts of our brains; our synapses have to remodel themselves to make the connection between visual symbols and the sounds that carry meaning.

Second, the punctuation that connects sentence parts varies between arbitrary conventions like putting a comma after the name of a state and important signposts for meaning like using commas to set off nonessential elements. Both the conventions and the signposts have to be overlaid on our spoken language awareness, requiring new coordination between parts of the brain.

Finally, written language demands a big burst of cognitive energy, especially when we haven’t had a lot of practice and have to think about every period and every modifier.

All these issues separate writing from speaking. They make the process of learning to convert our native language to writing into a secondary process more burdensome and harder to learn than simply learning to speak.

On the one hand, I think every writer should know the information in Deborah’s post: the parts of a sentence and the ways they work together. On the other hand, after twenty-five years of teaching college writing, I believe what the research into the acquisition of grammar “rules” tells us: people don’t learn these skills from lists of rules. Even the ability to recognize “a complete sentence” has seemed unteachable more often than not. A writer either has it or she does not.

Ironically, every indication is that we learn sentence structure and the conventions and signposts the same way we learn to talk: from being widely exposed to written language from a very young age. Reading comes first. Practice in writing to communicate is also vital. When we start trying to use writing to express needs or ideas we want taken seriously, we revise and work until we develop multiple strategies for making ourselves understood. That means acquiring a lot of rules.

To be fair, teachers can never tell just how much effort any given college student has put into learning the strategies for successful “grammatical” writing. This kind of knowledge is notoriously boring. Yet I have seen isolated examples of people who seemed almost illiterate and then somehow just figured it all out (for example, a young man I knew who joined the Army and emerged a totally different writer).

Does all this mean I think aspiring (and successful) writers shouldn’t learn the information in the post I’m sharing? Not at all. But just as important: keep reading. Watch how the writers you admire use clauses, conjunctions, and punctuation. Copy their styles to see what your book would sound like using their methods. Play.

At the risk of angering indie authors everywhere, I suggest you look for your best examples of these rules applied correctly in books, articles, and essays that have been traditionally published. Lord, no, editors in traditional houses aren’t right all the time, but more eyes have examined the writing and the more egregious errors have been winnowed out.

And don’t rely on Grammarly or other so-called editing bots. (Yes, I can start a sentence with “and,” thank you.) They don’t know what a complete sentence is, either.

Or when it’s okay not to use one. The grammar you can ignore if you want to, and why—that’s the kind of knowledge you really need!

How did you learn “the rules”? Share your strategies!

 

 

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“Secret Writing Rules” and Why to Ignore Them…

A great post from Anne R. Allen via Chris the Story-Reading Ape. Thanks, Chris!

Actually, some of my *favorite* rules to ignore! Especially 1, 3, 5, 6–gee, all of them.

But I do have several cents worth of addenda from my own experience in writing groups and classrooms.

Number 1 is among my favorites because so many critiquers in my current online writing group just HATE “echoes” to the point that they are tone-deaf to the power of repetition for emphasis and rhythm. Anne’s examples beautifully illustrate this point.

And I love #3 because of the many times I’ve been scolded for using “passive voice” when in fact I was using a progressive tense, which requires “to be” as an auxiliary. I agree that progressive tenses can be overused, but there’s a big difference between “He ate when she came in” and “He was eating when she came in.” Again, check out Anne’s examples.

As for #5, I’ve often started to write a post on the consequences of cutting “all” adverbs. Idiocy. You could never use a “when” or “before” or “after” clause if you tried to do that. You could never use “often” or “never.” Okay, some adverbs don’t add any information. Cut them. But stay sane. I have discovered in myself a tendency to pile up adjectives, and I appreciate having that lapse pointed out. And I do believe in the power of strong verbs. But just the right adjective, in just the right place, can be magic.

As for the passive voice, the wonderful book Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace by the late Joe Williams (latest editions co-authored by Greg Colomb) has a terrific discussion of the uses and abuses of the passive voice—and actually clarifies what that critter is! Check it out.

As for point of view, in the comments Anne clarifies that she means using multiple points of view in different scenes, not in the same paragraph or even sentence, as I’ve seen writers do. I’ve become paranoically sensitive to accidental POV slips, almost to the point, I fear, of annoying some of my fellow critiquers. But I’ve been re-reading some Tony Hillerman, and he “head-hops” all the time. So what to do? Make a deliberate decision that head-hopping really serves your text. My guess is that the practice will interfere with the close identification you want to build between reader and character.

Also in the comments, Anne touches on the “that/which” option. In my view, these are clear-cut, with “that” opening an essential modifier and “which” a non-essential one. But as Joe Williams pointed out almost forty years ago in his classic essay, “The Phenomenology of Error,” even the most rabid promoters of the distinction ignore it all the time. So we can, too.

My bottom line (note cliché, rule #7): Writing is about making choices. Knowing why readers sometimes object to style choices helps you make good decisions. But sometimes those decisions are to ignore.

 

 

Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog

by Anne R. Allen

Somerset Maugham famously said, “There are three rules for writing. Unfortunately, nobody knows what they are.”

But pretty much everybody you meet in the publishing business will give you a list of them. (One is “never start a sentence with ‘there are’” —so watch yourself, Mr. Maugham.)

Some of the rules show up in any standard writing book or class, but others only seem to get circulated in critique groups, conference workshops, and forums.

They’re a secret to everybody else.

But you’ll run into them sooner or later. In a forum or workshop, somebody will tell you with schoolmarmish assurance that you MUST follow these secret writing rules to be a successful novelist.

Nobody knows exactly where these rules come from, or why so many great books have become classics without following a single one.

Don’t get me wrong: many “secret writing rules” involve useful tips…

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Reference Books and Style Guides, #amwriting

What an absolutely terrific post! I completely agree with Connie Jasperson about Strunk &White: too rigid, outdated (even though the general sentiment is fine). I have often recommended both Story and The Writer’s Journey to fellow writers–and I’ve promoted Rhetorical Grammar aggressively on this blog several times. This “textbook” provides a whole new way of looking at how readers read what you wrote. Invaluable! Thanks, Connie!

Life in the Realm of Fantasy

I use the internet for researching many things on a daily basis. However, in my office, some reference books must be in their hardcopy forms, such as The Chicago Manual of Style. I (and most other editors) rely on the CMOS, as it’s the most comprehensive style guide, and is geared for writers of essays and novels, fiction, and nonfiction.

Strunk and White’s Elements of Style is an acceptable beginner style guide, but is presented in an arbitrary, arrogant fashion and sometimes runs contrary to commonly accepted practice. Strunk and White’s Elements of Style is still the same book it was when it was originally conceived, as it has not changed or evolved, despite the way our modern language has changed and evolved. Because the Elements of Style is somewhat antiquated in the rules it forces upon the writer, I no longer even own a copy of it.

Instead, I…

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More on Commas and Those Pesky Nonessential Modifiers!

Don Massenzio shares more on how to detect and punctuate essential and nonessential modifiers. This post from the Ediket blog provides some great practice examples! Check them out.

via How to Use an Appositive

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What to do with old obsolete grammar rules?

I’ve weighed in on this very issue of grammar rules you may not really need! And here, for example. Many so-called rules come from dubious historical sources and, in use in context, are judgment calls. English isn’t Latin. It can’t be like Latin. Thanks, Jean Cogdell, for sharing and reminding us to make “good” use of the “rules.”

Jean's Writing

Do we throw them out?

Or do we realize some rules are made to be broken?

 Hooray! At last, a common sense post about what to do about hard and fast rules that make no sense in this day and time.

6 Old Grammar Rules That Are Finally Going Out of Style by KELLY GURNETT

Here is my take on her 6 rules:
  1. Ending sentences with a preposition.
    • Guilty, but I didn’t know this rule was attributed to Winston Churchill
  2. Starting sentences with a conjunction.
    • Oh yes, guilty. This gem was apparently courtesy of teachers in the 19th century.
  3. Sentence fragments.
    • Now honestly, I write…

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The Only Comma Rules You’ll Ever Need!

The five basic comma rulesCommas are among my favorite tools for building meaning. Used intelligently, commas are wonderful signposts that tell readers which part of a sentence they’ve stumbled into—and then help them make their way out again. I like commas so much I’ve written multiple posts about them.

If comma rules confuse you, take heart! If improving reader comprehension is your goal, there are really only a few “rules” to remember:

Use commas:

Rule 1: After introductory elements.

This is the one most people seem to know about. But I argue that commas are really only necessary when the introductory element gets long enough that readers may miss the lane change back into the main part of the sentence.

So:

After a moment he left the room. (No comma needed unless you want to emphasize a pause.)

But:

After he spent  an extended vacation in a remote village in the Alps, where did he go next? (The comma lets readers know that “where” begins a new clause.)

Rule 2: Around or after “interrupters,” including non-essential modifiers (this is a rule, not an option).More comma rules

I think this one is the most confusing for many writers.

Short interrupters can be easy to spot:

Jane, however, did not go with him to the Alps.

However, Jane did not go.

Non-essential modifiers are elements that can be lifted out of the sentence without compromising its meaning or purpose.

The old car, which was a lot like the one my grandfather used to drive, had been repainted bright blue.

The information about grandad’s car is incidental to the meaning of the sentence, which is that the car is now bright blue. Lift it out and only this incidental information is lost. The rule here, and it IS a rule, is TWO COMMAS, not just the first one. You need that second comma to signal the return to the main clause.

Contrast the example above with this example of an essential modifier, one that can’t be lifted out without eliminating the point of the sentence:

The car that gives you the most mileage is the one you should buy.

Without the modifier, we have:

The car is the one you should buy.

Since the point of the sentence is to say which car, the modifier is essential to the meaning.

NO COMMAS around essential modifiers! They are integral to the sentence, not “interrupters.”

Sometimes confusion about what constitutes an essential or non-essential modifier can turn a sentence into nonsense. I often see commas inserted into constructions like this.

Author Stephen King wrote a lot of books.

Note: no commas. Now try it without the essential modifier, in this case an appositive:

Author wrote a lot of books.

The trick: try taking out the modifying clause and see what remains.

Rule 3: Direct address (this is also a rule, not an option):Do you need the Oxford Comma?

Hi, Mr. Smith.

Did you buy bread at the store, Louise?

Louise, did you buy the bread?

Well, Mr. Smith, I guess we won’t be having any bread today.

Rule 4: Before “and,” “but,” etc., if you have more than two items. (This is the infamous Oxford or serial comma.) The elements of the “serial” or list can be words, phrases, or whole sentences.

Louise forgot the bread, cheese, and fruit; she did remember the wine, beer, and vodka.

My worries about her diet involved her lack of protein, her lack of vegetables, and her preference for liquid components.

If you have only two items linked by “and” or “but,” you have a compound and don’t need a comma, as in this sentence, which contains a compound predicate for the pronoun “you.” I’ve underlined the two components (and note the comma after the introductory clause).

Rule 5: Before the “and” or “but” if you’re joining two complete sentences.

I’d argue this is a judgment call, but this sentence illustrates how judicious use of a comma in a compound sentence like this one can tell readers which part of the sentence they’ve ventured into.

That’s five “rules” to absorb—not really so many. Rule Number Six: if one of those five rules doesn’t apply, DON’T INSERT A COMMA. No commas between subjects and their verbs, no commas after “and” or “but,” and so forth. List the five rules and check your questionable comma to see whether one of these applies*:

  • After introductory elements
  • Around interrupters
  • In direct address
  • Before “and” or “but” in a list of three or more items
  • Before the “and” or “but” in a compound sentence (two complete sentences joined with a coordinating conjunction like “and” or “but”**).Check the five basic comma rules

*There are some “conventional” rules for commas that don’t really affect readers’ comprehension, such as the comma that should follow the name of a state (“Austin, Texas, was his home.”) or the ones before and after the year in dates. Any handbook will answer your questions about those minor comma uses.

**There are actually several coordinating conjunctions in addition to “and” and “but,” and the rule applies to them as well, but I didn’t want to muddy the waters too much. The other coordinating conjunctions you’re likely to use include “for,” “nor,” “or,” “yet,” and “so.”

What comma rule confuses you most? How do you decide when to include one? Share you solutions with us all!

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