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Category Archives: Tone

Common Comma Issues

A lot of people seemed to like my post on how to use past perfect tense, so I wanted to continue today with another grammar rundown. I’m going to go through some common comma issues I see in manuscripts. I know we are getting into the weeds a little with grammar, but it’s amazing how some small tweaks to your manuscript will help sentence structure, story understanding, and an overall better reading experience for your reader. Misplacing or misusing a comma can alter the meaning of a sentence, so yeah, they’re pretty important.

Comma Splice: Use commas to separate independent clauses when they are joined by a coordinating conjunction (and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet). A comma splice is when a comma without a conjunction joins two separate sentences. A comma splice is incorrect. There are a few ways to correct a comma splice. One way is to use a semicolon to connect the two clauses without using a conjunction. You can also break the sentence into two separate sentences.

Examples that are all correct:

  • My favorite book releases soon, and I am so excited.
  • My favorite book releases soon; I am so excited.
  • My favorite book releases soon. I am so excited.

Serial Comma: Use commas to separate words and groups of words with a series of three or more.

Examples:

  • This book has awesome dialogue, plot, and characterization.
  • Sebastian, Biggie, and Loki are my four legged babies.

Using commas to separate two or more coordinate adjectives that describe the same noun: This is a big one all writers should pay attention to. Use a comma to separate two or more coordinate adjectives that describe the same noun. Be careful not to add a comma before the final adjective and the noun or between non-coordinate adjectives. Here’s a helpful hint: if the word and can be inserted between the two adjectives, use a comma. If you can swap the adjectives around and they still make sense, use a comma. A coordinate adjective separately modifies the noun that follows it. Cumulative adjectives do not modify the noun that directly follows it.

Examples:

  • This is a strong, funny manuscript.
  • He wrapped me in an amazing power hug.  *You do not use a comma here because they are non-coordinate, and you can’t say, “He wrapped me in an amazing and power hug.

Comma to separate essential phrases and clauses: An essential phrase or clause is used to modify the noun. It also adds critical information to the sentence. You do not set essential phrases or clauses off with commas.

Example:

  • The people who work in publishing are awesome.

A nonessential phrase or clause adds extra information to the sentence. The phrase or clause can be eliminated without changing the meaning of the sentence. You should always set nonessential phrases or clauses off with commas.

Example:

  • Hugs and Chocolate, an awesome blog, is a great community. *Hugs and Chocolate is named, so the description is nonessential.

I could go on and on. There is so much information out there, but this is a good start. Let me know if you have any questions, and I’ll answer them in the comments.

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Writing in Past Perfect Tense

Naturally occurring iron springs in Telluride, Colorado.

First off, look at the gorgeous picture. I took that a few weeks ago in Telluride, Colorado. It’s naturally occurring iron springs. Stunning.

Okay, now we get into the fun stuff.

Regardless if your book is written in present tense or past tense (also referred to as simple past), there are times in your story when you’ll probably refer to something that has already happened. Sometimes a flashback is necessary to the story. When going into a flashback, or describing something that has already happened in the past, you’ll want to use the past perfect tense.

Well, when/how do you use past perfect?

Believe it or not, there’s a formula for past perfect: (had + past participle = past perfect). I’m not sure about you, but I learn better when I have an example in front of me, so here we go. I’m going to start off in past tense, go into a past perfect to describe something that has already happened, and then transition back to simple past.

Sebastian meowed over and over, trying to get my attention. He either wanted food or love. (Notice this first sentence is in simple past. The reader knows it’s in past tense, all the events that are happening in the story are told in the past.) I’d just graduated from college when I’d made the decision to get my very own cat. I’d always wanted a pound kitty. (Going into a flashback, switch to past perfect. Make sure your reader knows you’re talking about something that has already happened.)

Sebastian picked me as much as I picked him. (Here’s where it gets fun. When you go into past perfect, once you establish that it’s in the past, you switch from past perfect to simple past tense, because the word “had” becomes quite cumbersome, even when used in a contraction. The thing to remember is, when we come out of the flashback, make sure the reader is aware by, and the transition to “now” is clear.) He was such an energetic kitten. He played with my roommate’s cat and loved sitting in my window seat. Now (I’m establishing that the flashback is over, making the transition from past perfect to simple past tense), he’s (notice this is in present tense. That’s because it’s an absolute. Sebastian is still alive and kicking, therefore we use the present tense. I’ll have to do another blog post on absolutes, if you’re interested) fat and lazy, but full of personality. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Hopefully that wasn’t too painful, and yes, I do love my animals an absurd amount.

The key to using past perfect is transition. You have to clue your reader in on the timeline. Make sure it’s smooth. This will eliminate confusion, and it allows you to tell more aspects of your story by using things from a character’s past.

If you have any questions, ask away, and I’ll answer in the comments.

Useful links:

This is a great article about writing effective flashbacks.

Visit this page for more past perfect examples.

 

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Training Tools – Websites for Creativity

El grito de la gaviota – Seagull Scream by Dani_vr on Flickr

I’ve wanted to use that image since I first saw it. Not sure how it applies to today’s post, but hopefully it made you smile 🙂

I’m coming off my post-Olympic high. I miss coming home and watching elite athletes fulfill their dreams. I don’t know about you, but I found it inspiring. It gave me a warm and fuzzy feeling in my core. Those people worked hard, sacrificed, trained, and look where it got them. Writers aren’t that different. We have to go through a lot of the same things (but with more wine and chocolate and less laps and pushups).

Our minds are constantly being pushed, our imaginations stretched. We’re honing our craft. If you’re like me, you’ve pretty much given up sleep. Learning, we’re always learning. And what is this “free time” you speak of? Yet we do it because we love it. We have goals and dreams, and we won’t stop until we make it.

What does all this have to do with creativity? Well, as writers, creativity is kind of important to the whole process. I have a bookmarks folder titled, “Websites for Creativity,” and I thought I’d pass along some of my favorites. Think of them as training tools. (There, I totally tied this back to the Olympics 😉 Sneaky, right?)

Critters is a part of Critique.org but for horror (here’s looking at you, Brian), fantasy, and sci-fi writers. How awesome is that? It can be hard to find critique partners for genre fiction; thankfully critters helps writers connect.

Creativity Portal – If you want to read articles about creativity, and I do this sometimes to better understand the creativity process, then creativity portal is a good resource.

Easy Street Prompts – Like writing prompts? Check this one out.

Six Sentences – This website invites you to tell a story in six sentences. Kind of interesting.

Plot Scenario Generator – This is one of my new favorites. The whole website is really good.

Five Free College Level Writing & Lit Videos – Who says you have to pay to learn?

InkPageant – A collection of blog posts for writers.

80 Journal Writing Prompts – I’m a sucker for journaling and writing prompts. What more could I want?

That should be enough to keep you busy for a while. What about you? What are some of your go-to sites for creativity?

 

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Giving and Getting the Most Out of Critiques

Best critique partner ever — Sebastian

There are so many awesome blog posts out there about critiquing, and I encourage you to read all of these posts–you won’t be disappointed. Earlier in the week, Jamie posted about Being Emotionally Prepared for Critiques. I also have a wonderful friend, and fellow YA author, Sarah Ockler, who has written a few posts on critique groups: Evaluating Critique Groups: Six Crucial Questions, and Are you an Ideal Critique Partner?. Brian, from Descent into Slushland, wrote a post How do you Find Critique Partners, and I told him he inspired me to write a post about critiquing, so here goes.

Critiquing — it can be terrifying and exhilarating all at once. I love my partners like they are my own family. I’ve gotten to know them and know about their life, and the friendships I’ve made are everlasting. But no matter how much you love you partner(s) or critique group, it can still be stressful.

When critiquing, there are some things that are helpful, while others simply…aren’t. Writers are full of passion. Yes, you know you are. That passion is crucial to the creative process, but we oftentimes need to keep that passion in check when critiquing for others.

  • Keep it constructive. Sometimes we may not necessarily like a sentence, or maybe a character isn’t working…for YOU. Ask yourself, “Why isn’t this working for me?” Is it simply because you would have written it a different way? Is there a problem with character motivation? Does the wording read awkward? The sentence not tight enough? What kind of image does it bring to mind? Is it the image you think the author is trying to convey? Don’t just tell someone you don’t like something and not tell them why. That isn’t constructive. That is YOU giving a personal opinion.
  • Try to keep the word I out of the critique. Sentences like, “I hate this. I don’t like this character.” Don’t belong in a critique. A critique is serious business. You have to instill and generate a tremendous amount of trust in someone before you can take them seriously. The moment you stop being constructive, the moment the defenses go up.
  • Help diagnose the problem, don’t fix it. It is so easy to want to write someone else’s work for them, because, well, it’s not your work, and we can fix someone else’s work better than we can fix our own. That isn’t your job as a critique partner. If you think the author could say something better (and it isn’t working for you…don’t offer suggestions to something that is working for you), write something like, “Maybe you could try something like this…” Give a suggestion, and then tell them why you’re giving them the suggestion. Sometimes editors and critique partners are good at diagnosing an issue, but we may not have the best solution for fixing it.
  • Ask yourself, “Does this really need to be fixed, or is this just not how I would write it?” This is big. Sometimes we want to rewrite words/sentences/paragraphs/pages when they don’t necessarily need to be rewritten. Everyone has a different writing style–if we didn’t, then no one would read because reading would be boring if everything was similar. It can be easy to try and rewrite things because you think you could write it better. Again, not your job as a critique partner. Just because you would write something one way doesn’t mean it needs to be rewritten at all.
  • Take all feedback into consideration. Not all feedback will be useful. You’re the writer, it’s your story. Sometimes we read something from our critique partner(s) that we disagree with–and that’s normal. You have to have confidence in your work to know what feedback to use and what not to use. BUT, consider all feedback. Even if you’re not going to use it, think about it. Sometimes a comment can spark a thought that leads to an epiphany with your work. Maybe you never would have had the epiphany if you wouldn’t have read the feedback.
  • When two or more. Some people have one critique partner, some have more. Personally (notice I said personally, this isn’t what everyone does, but I’ll tell you why I feel it’s important), I have three (sometimes more–I’m fortunate to have some amazing ladies who read my work) people who read my work for me. Here’s why–when two or more people identify that something isn’t working for them, chances are, you need to go back over that particular thing and rework it. This ties in to taking in all feedback–if one person says something isn’t working for them, but the other two don’t have a problem with it, I still consider it, but I’m not as focused on it as I would be if two or more have a problem with it.
  • Keep a schedule. This is crucial to the success of your work and the relationship with your critique partner(s). Hold one another accountable. If you say you’re going to submit so many pages by a certain date, then make sure you do that. Next, make sure you both agree on when you’ll have them back to the other. Make a schedule that works best for everyone, and keep it.
  • Goals. It’s important to find someone who has the same goals as you. How can you expect someone you’re working with to take your writing serious if they don’t take their own writing serious? If you find someone who is also actively trying to seek publication, and you are actively seeking publication, you can do wonders for each other. You can motivate, encourage, and help the other prepare.
  • Be happy for each other. This is a touchy subject, and I know none of us do this intentionally, but keep that green monster in check. Chances are, you and your critique partner(s) will be at different stages in your writing. One may be further ahead than the other (in terms of being ready to query, not skill level or anything). Encourage them, be happy for them. Querying is a nightmare. There are rejections, second guesses, and lots of emotions to deal with. This is your biggest dream for crying out loud. Be supportive of one another. Offer a shoulder or an ear. Don’t bask in someone else’s misery because you aren’t ready to query yet. Be genuine. It makes a difference.
  • If you have an issue with a critique partner(s), talk it out. Don’t let something fester. If someone says something that hurt your feelings, tell them. They probably didn’t do it intentionally. You have to open up to one another in order for the relationship to be effective. It is a relationship. A big one. Just like any other relationship, you have to put some work into maintaining it. You’ll only grow closer when you do this.

Loki — Sleeping and critiquing

There are a million other things one could write about critiquing, finding critique groups, and being an effective critiquer, but I’ll stop here. What are some things you look for in a critique partner?

 

What’s Your Story?

This blog post is going to be a little…unconventional. Over the past couple of weeks I’ve taken some really great trainings (at my day job), and the tools and information I’ve learned has been so valuable that I thought I’d post a mini recap here.

One of the trainings I took was called Crucial Confrontations taught by Vital Smarts. How do you know if a confrontation is crucial? Well, if the emotions are high and the stakes are high, you probably have yourself a crucial confrontation. But, it’s up to you to decide if you want to have a confrontation or not. If something is really bothering you, then I highly encourage it. The results may really surprise you.

The biggest takeaway for me was whenever someone does something like violates your trust, your friendship, or disrespects you, as humans, we immediately come up with a story in our mind about why they did what they did. What was their motivation? Well, as writers, we can come up with some elaborate stories. And they are just that. Stories.

Lets use an example. Say you ask someone to critique your work. You specifically ask for feedback. The person comes back with some comments that aren’t exactly off the mark, but they are written in a way that kind of hurts your feelings. You start to think this person doesn’t know what they’re talking about. They don’t “get” your story. In some instances this may be right, but what we’re doing is telling ourselves a story. This story creates an emotion, and we become defensive. We no longer care about the true meaning behind the words, we come up with all kinds of assumptions as to why this person said what they said. As an editor, critiquer, and writer, I try to always be respectful and mindful of what I write in a critique. I’m sure we all do. But after you’ve read a story a lot, and you get familiar with it and the characters, it’s easy to just jot comments here and there that may be blunt. We don’t mean for them to be hurtful, but it’s text. There’s no way to decipher the person’s tone or body language.

I’m not saying we all do this, and I know we all try hard not to, but it’s something that can happen regardless of our intentions. The best thing to do is be aware of the stories we tell ourselves–they’re NOT fact. You don’t know what the person meant because you haven’t asked them yet. You haven’t had a chance to get over your own assumptions.

Here’s another example. Say someone says something that hurts your feelings, but instead of going to them and talking about it, you turn to silence. You choose not to say anything to them. Instead, you come up with a story as to why they said what they said, and you go ahead and come up with how they meant it, too. “They don’t like me. They’re just trying to get me down. They’re mean. Come to think of it, I bet they’re happy they made me feel bad.” That’s a story–assumptions. Take a second to come up with a scenario in your mind. When’s the last time someone said something to you that upset you? What did you do about it? Did you think of the facts? Or come up with your own? It’s so so so easy to do. I didn’t realize how often I did it unit this training.

Talk to the person who upset you. Don’t attack them. Instead, create a safe environment for them to open up to you. Say things like, “I don’t want this to create a problem for us, and I do want us to be able to talk about this so we can move on. Is that okay with you?” This creates a safe environment for the person to want to open up. It can lead to a peaceful confrontation, and hopefully you’ll both leave the conversation feeling better. That’s the goal.

So next time someone says something to you that hurts your feelings, instead of coming up with a story, stop. Try to think about it objectively and with a clean slate.

 

Don’t take that tone with me. Oh wait…

Confession time(I like these, you’ll get used to them).

When I start a new novel I give absolutely no thought as to what tone I want to set. I never have and I never will.  You know what decides my tone?

Who my main character is as a person and the kind of challenges I’ll be throwing at her.

All my novels so far have been first person character driven because I like getting into my MCs head and figuring out her motivations, her reasons for doing anything. Even a thing as simple as taking the stairs instead of the elevator. She likes the exercise.

I did a little bit of research, aka searched my Google reader, and saw somebody mention that you can set the tone of a novel with the very first line. I know it does but I’ve never really thought about it.  This made me think back, and look through, all my previous novels and the first lines I gifted them with.

It’s kind of spot on. That first line sets some kind of standard that we as the writer of our story have to be true to.  While book shopping, some readers will look at a first line and judge the entire novel on what they read. I’ve seen contests where writers had to enter their first lines and were judged solely by that one sentence. Most of those poor writers’ first lines were torn to shreds by other writers and I’m sure some of the entrants still carry the scars from that experience. I just went back to that contest and scanned some of the comments on the first lines. Harsh. (a post about that at a later date)

It’s insane when you think how much weight one string of words carry. Insane! You will either grab a reader’s attention, or they will toss your work aside as being not compelling enough, not good enough, not worthy of their time. Those people disregarding a novel based on a first line will most likely miss out on a wonderful story, but it’s their loss, right? Yes, it is.

I once said, and will say it again, I will never judge a book by its first line, first page, or first chapter. And definitely not by its cover. NEVER. I’m a writer. I know what kind of work and effort, blood, sweat, and tears go into writing a novel. You put everything you have into that story, and I’m sure you leave a part of your soul there when you’re done. I will give the author and the story they wrote the respect they deserve and read at least five or six chapters. After that, if I put the novel down, it’s only because it just might not be the kind of thing I’m into, or what I expected. It doesn’t happen a lot, I can count the number of times on one hand. I’m well aware that, if I get published one day, some people might do the same with my novel, and I’m okay with it.

And I’m getting away from the reason of this post. Setting tone.

Now, I’m not claiming to be an expert in the field of tone and the setting of it, not at all. But I thought I’d share with you guys my experience with it.

A few years ago I wrote an urban fantasy, which I still love and will one day fix. It started with one of those borderline no-no beginnings. My MC was on her bed, trying to fall asleep. I know. I know. But that was only the second novel I wrote and I was still learning about the finder intricacies of opening pages and their dos and don’ts. That MC got annoyed with whatever it was that kept her awake and stormed out of her house to confront the noisemakers.

That first few pages set a tone of casualness that isn’t reflected in the rest of the novel, and I didn’t even realize it until I wanted to start querying that novel.  Somebody critiqued the first pages of that novel and told me that, even though the start is well and good, maybe it isn’t the right place to start the novel.  I sat back, mulled it over, and wrote a whole new first chapter.

It made such a difference!

The new chapter started out with a completely different tone and it amazed me. Where the previous opening had more of a casual intro and one annoyed MC, the new one showed me a whole different side to that MC. The serious one dealing with something so life changing that she has trouble thinking straight. And best of all, it reflected the tone of the rest of the manuscript. It added a whole different kind or urgency.

Since then I’ve learned my lesson and improved/adjusted the tone of each manuscript to fit what I have in mind for that story and its MC.  The first line, paragraph, page, and chapter plays such an important role, even if you remove the thought that all the abovementioned have to catch the agent’s, publisher’s, and reader’s attention.  It prepares whoever will pick up your novel for what is in store, and most of the time they don’t even know it. It’s like a personal joke between you and a friend, or a secret that you tell only your most trusted confidant.

I think this post morphed from being about tone into something about first sentences.

So tell me this, because I love reading how others go to work, how do you decide tone? Is it reflected in your first line? Have you ever had to rewrite or add a first chapter to fit the idea you originally had?

PS: Here’s my current wip’s first line.

Sebastian said he found me in a hole.

 
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Posted by on April 11, 2012 in First Lines, Personal Experience, Tone, Writing

 

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