A must-listen podcast for novelists

Writing a novel is an incredibly complex task with so many moving parts it’s easy to lose track of them. That’s one reason editing is so important. You can’t—simply can’t, it’s physically and intellectually impossible—get it perfect in a single draft.

Because the task is so complicated, multiple opinions about developing your craft are beneficial. Not every method or technique works for every writer.

Photo by Craig Hauger • freeimages.com

Photo by Craig Hauger • freeimages.com

I recommend the Writing Excuses podcast for novelists at every level because the show’s four hosts each present unique view on the craft. The best known of the hosts is Brandon Sanderson, a best-selling fantasy novelist. The other writers on the show—Mary Robinette Kowal, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler—each bring a distinct perspective and set of experiences.

The first words the reader reads are not going to be the first words that you write. You can find the story’s voice before you pour that voice into the those first pages.—Writing Excuses

Season 10 of the show is designed as a master class in novel writing and has so far covered brainstorming ideas, developing characters, and writing openings.

I especially recommend that you go back to Season 9 and listen to the episode about “Three Pronged Character Development.” This method of examining a character describes Competence, Proactivity, and Sympathy as being like sliders on a soundboard, postulating that scaling the “volume” up or down will affect how readers respond. This metaphor can help you troubleshoot characters who are too perfect or too bland.

Though the hosts are mainly writing in the speculative genres, their advice applies for whatever genre your novel is in, and much of it will probably also be useful for writers of memoir and other narrative nonfiction.

Finally, a writing guide for the 21st Century

Last time I taught my Edit Like a Pro: Elements of Fiction seminar, one of the students questioned the absence of The Elements of Style from my recommended reading list.

“It’s a primer,” I said. “If you’re writing novels, you’re beyond Strunk and White.”

That little book is such a milestone for most of us that we often forget that the text on which it is based was written almost a hundred years ago by a college professor whose freshmen students couldn’t write. Prof. Strunk was so irked by the inability of his incoming students to write a coherent paper that he put together a little pamphlet with some basic writing advice for them.

The book was so concise and useful for writing instruction that it had been enthroned as if it were the Alpha and Omega of writing instruction.

computer books writing style

Illustration © viperagp • Fotolia

It’s not. It’s a book for freshmen who don’t know how to write. It’s not even a particularly good one. I won’t go into all the reasons why, because Geoffrey Pullum has already done a thorough takedown of The Elements of Style. Jan Freeman also pointed out one major problem with Strunk and White, which is that is has not been updated to keep pace with language change.

If you’ve come so far as to have completed a draft of a novel, even if it’s a horrid draft, you’ve done more writing than Strunk’s beleaguered freshmen. Move on, friends.

But where to?

That has been the problem. I tell people not to bother with Elements once they’ve reached this point. But where should they turn next?

2015-03-13 14.36.05Finally, finally, I have an answer: The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century by Steven Pinker.

I confess I am only on Chapter One of this excellent book, but Pinker has already won me over with statements like this:

An aspiring writer could be forgiven for thinking that learning to write is like negotiating an obstacle course in boot camp, with a sergeant barking at you for every errant footfall. Why not think of it instead as a form of pleasurable mastery, like cooking or photography? Perfecting the craft is a lifelong calling, and mistakes are part of the game. Though the quest for improvement may be informed by lessons and honed by practice, it must first be kindled by a delight in the best work of the masters and a desire to approach their excellence.—Pinker, Steven

Pinker gets it. This hits right at the heart of what I’ve been saying since before I compared new writers to garage bands. Novel-writing is the only artistic profession where you’re expected to hide in a garret until your work is perfect. But “mistakes are part of the game.”

The advice in Pinker’s book is level-headed and based not only on his own experience as a writer but on his work in cognitive science. Despite being only a fraction of the way into this book, I have no hesitation about recommending it. It’s a fresh take and a long overdue addition to the writing canon.

This post originally appeared at New Authors Fellowship. Apologies to those who’ve now seen it twice.

Disclosure of Material Connection: The Amazon link above is an affiliate link. This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive a pittance of a commission from Amazon. Regardless, I only recommend books I believe will be of value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

How Novelists Can Blog

There are mixed opinions about whether blogging is any good for novelists. As Caprice Hokstad noted on my post “Why You Should Be Blogging,” this kind of writing is nonfiction and doesn’t come easily to fiction writers. I myself struggled to blog consistently over at my other blog before I got serious, got a purpose, and started serving writers by producing this blog.

I have no delusions that my efforts here or there will help me promote my novels when they’re released.

novelist blog

Nevertheless, some novelists do make a go of blogging, usually by writing about topics or themes that occur in their books. Articles about the kinds of things their target readers would be interested in. So if blogging suits you, here are some novelist blogs you can look to for inspiration.

Lynn Coleman writes historical fiction and blogs about her research at 19th Century Historical Tidbits. The same kind of readers who enjoy reading books with 19th-century settings will also enjoy reading the recipes, fashion plates, and magazine articles from the period that Coleman shares.

David Brin, a science fiction writer, blogs about science and society. He spotlights other writers’ books and isn’t afraid to go off on a political rant. Here is a writer focused on serving his target readers and not trying to please everyone.

Angela Hunt pulls of the rare feat of writing both fiction and nonfiction in multiple genres, so she has a diverse blog.

Wanda Brunstetter, by contrast, has a blog tightly focused on the subject of her novels—Amish culture.

Danielle Steel blogs in a way that makes each post seem like a letter to her readers. She blogs about fashion and other topics that appeal to her readership.

Brandon Sanderson, who writes epic fantasy, tends to blog about his work, including promoting the writing podcast he’s part of, but he also covers news relating to the genre and promotes other authors’ books.

For more ideas, listen to the Novel Marketing Podcast episode “What Should Novelists Blog About?”

If blogging’s not for you, don’t bother

Having started this discussion with an affirmation of blogging, I will nevertheless close it by admitting that you don’t have to blog. Plenty of writers succeed without a blog. You should still have a website, though, so people can find you online. If you can stock that website with a few articles related to the themes and topics in your fiction, so much the better. C.J. Lyons, who writes medical thrillers, has a website with a small collection of related articles. You need a web presence, but that presence doesn’t have to include a blog.

UPDATE: Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn posted a blog the same day as this one on the same topic, and she has some excellent observations about what your author website should contain. She, too, advises against blogging if your heart’s not in it:

If you have to ask what to blog about, then probably don’t bother. It’s only worth doing if you just can’t help but share what you’re passionate about.—Joanna Penn

Why You Need a Picture with Your Blog Post

You may have noticed that almost every blog post you read has at least one picture with it. Often, the picture isn’t strictly necessary to understanding the topic. In fact, sometimes the images have a tenuous connection to the actual content. Nevertheless, you are well advised to include one with your own posts. The reason is simple.

Pictures get people’s attention.

blog pictures

Illustration by Billy Alexander, my favorite FreeImages artist.

In print media, photos provide what we call an “entry point.” Say I’m flipping through a newspaper—maybe my local business journal?—and see an illustration of a spacecraft. What the heck? So I stop to see what that’s about and learn that a local manufacturer just got a NASA contract to build a new manned space flight vehicle for the U.S.A., and they’re going to hire a few thousand aerospace engineers right here in Central Florida…

OK, I know, wishful thinking on my part.

But the point is, a photo or illustration is attention-getting, and in a media-saturated environment like the Internet, they’re incredibly important. When your blog post is shared on social media, either by you or by one of your followers, it will get more attention if there’s a photo with it. People will pause to look at the photo, and if the headline also grabs their attention, they’ll click through to your post.

Also, images give you another search engine opportunity. When you upload a photo, one of the information fields is “alt text.” If you put your keywords in that field, your post will be more likely to show up in search engine results than if you leave it blank.

Where to find good images

Don’t use Google Images or something like it to find images for your blog. If you grab pictures from there, you do not have a license to re-use them on your own site. As writers, we expect people to honor our copyrights. Photographers and artists are also protected by copyright, so honor that and don’t use their images without their permission.

Here are some good sites for blog art:

FreeImages. This site has a large collection of photos and illustrations, all free for you to use. Because these are free, the quality is iffy, but there are some gems in there. This is always my first stop, because like many freelancers, I’m on a shoestring budget.

Fotolia. This isn’t a free site, but the prices are reasonable, and the quality of the images is excellent. Especially when I’m looking for something abstract rather than literal, Fotolia usually meets my needs.

WANA Commons. This Flickr group founded by blogger Kristen Lamb is a free photo pool by and for bloggers. (WANA is Lamb’s acronym for We Are Not Alone, her rallying cry for writers.)

Wikimedia Commons. This site is good for when you need classical art or pictures of things in the real world. The photos are usually covered by a Creative Commons license.

Unsplash. This site has fabulous photography, but a limited selection. Also using the Creative Commons licensing model.

How to find good images

Usually, as on this post, a literal interpretation of the topic works just fine. To find the image above, I used the search terms “photo collage” on FreeImages.

Other times, you’ll want to avoid the obvious. For example, if you’re writing about business introductions, don’t go with the obvious handshake photo. Dig deeper for something that hasn’t been done before. Try adding the word concept to your keyword as a search term. That’s how I found the illustration on my “Introduce Your Readers to Someone New” post.

The more abstract the topic, the more creative you need to be about how to illustrate it. That’s why you see a Rubik’s Cube on my post about preventing continuity errors. Instead of illustrating your topic literally, try to think of a metaphor. That can help set your post apart in the social media stream.

If you know a great site for free or inexpensive art, please share in the comments.

Choose Your Style Guide

I wrote before about three of the most common style books: The Chicago Manual of Style, The Christian Writer’s Manual of Style, and the Associated Press Stylebook.

There are two others worth considering if you do most of your work online.

The Yahoo! Style Guide is a huge compendium that not only deals with spelling issues (it recommends capitalizing Internet but omits the hyphen in e-mail, which I think wrong-headed) but also with web-specific issues like search engine optimization and user interfaces. At the moment, the Yahoo guide is going for $11 on Kindle and $16.88 in print, but it’s possible to buy used copies for much less.

Garbl’s Editorial Style and Usage Manual is compiled by freelance writer and editor Gary B. Larson, and though I have yet to delve deeply into it, what I’ve seen so far is entirely sensible, except of course that pesky omission of the hyphen in e-mail. The Garbl manual is organized alphabetically, just like the AP and CWMS books. Garbl seems very similar to the AP book. I offer it here because it’s free, so you can use it as a “starter” style guide until you settle on one for sure.

style books e-reader

Illustration © Oleksiy Mark • Fotolia

How style affects spelling

Which style book you choose can have an effect on your spelling. If you’re using Chicago, you’ll hyphenate e-mail, as the major dictionaries recommend.

On whether to write OK or okay, AP, Yahoo, and Garbl specifically call for OK. CWMS calls for okay. Chicago is silent in print, but when I asked the editors, they said, “We follow Webster’s 11th Collegiate, which puts ‘OK’ as the first spelling—but that does not mean it is preferred. Rather, ‘okay’ is an equal variant (also standard).”

So when checking your spelling, check the style book first. If it’s silent on the issue, go to your dictionary.

Knowing Which Style Book to Choose

With so many style books to choose from (and I haven’t even addressed The Gregg Reference Manual and the FranklinCovey Style Guide, which are for business writing, or the Turabian and APA manuals, used in colleges), how do you pick?

The main thing to consider is what you are writing. If you plan to do most or all of your writing on the web, the Yahoo manual is perfect. Use Garbl if financial constraints are a problem.

If you’re writing in the Christian Market, the CWMS will advise you on matters the others don’t address. A colleague recently introduced me to the now out-of-print Creative Writer’s Style Guide, which so far looks very useful for novelists and writers of creative nonfiction. I suggest picking up a used copy while you still can.

If you’re writing articles for periodicals, you may want the Associated Press Stylebook, but again, since Garbl seems closely modeled on that one, you could use Garbl if you need to save money. Chicago is the standard for academic nonfiction, but for most writers, it’s overkill. As I said before, Proofreading Secrets of Best-Selling Authors compiles information from both Chicago and AP, so it’s the only one most writers will need.

Grammar and Spelling Resources

Last time, we looked at the first two parts of PUGS, Punctuation and Usage. Today we’ll look at the others.

Grammar

In common speech, we often use “grammar” to encompass all parts of writing, including spelling and punctuation. But grammar really refers specifically to the way we assemble words into sentences.

English grammar is very complex, and has multiple registers, or degrees of formality. Many college instructors require the most formal register, so that’s what many businesspeople use. At its most extreme, this register eliminates both first and second-person pronouns, leading to unnatural constructions like “this researcher has found” and “one may notice” instead of “I’ve found” and “you may notice.” In standard writing, there is no proscription against these forms. So you can choose whatever level of formality you’re comfortable with. In a blog, you can be very casual.

grammar spelling

illustration © kentoh • Fotolia

You are, however, going to have to proofread your own grammar, or have someone else do it. Microsoft’s grammar checker is frequently wrong. If grammar is not your strong suit, you can outsource it to someone like me, or you can enlist a friend who’s strong in grammar and in exchange offer to help them in some way that suits your skill set.

For further reading on grammar, I recommend The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation by Jane Straus as an accessible text that provides the fundamentals most writers need. If you want a more in-depth text, try Oxford Modern English Grammar by Bas Aarts. The latter is a highly technical academic text, so it’s probably overkill for most of us. While you’re at Amazon, download the Kindle preview of A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar by Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum (you can read on your computer if you don’t have a Kindle device). It’s even more technical and densely written than the Oxford, but it’s got a great introduction that explains the differences between standard and nonstandard English, formal and informal style, and descriptive and prescriptive approaches to grammar.

Spelling

Spell check will flag blatant misspellings, so it is not quite as useless as the grammar checker. But spell check will not save you if you add an h to the last name of Florida politician Charlie Crist. Yeah, I did that once. Spell check can’t help if you type manger instead of manager. It just has no sense of context. So proofread backward. That will force you to examine each word in turn without running them together into sentences.

Many people, including copyeditors, wrestle with when to include hyphens. You may think of that as punctuation, but truly hyphenation is usually a spelling issue. There are pages of charts in the Chicago manual—10 pages—explaining when to use and not use hyphens, and they still don’t cover all circumstances.

The trend in American English is to eliminate hyphens unless confusion will result. That said, check your dictionary, because some compounds are always hyphenated, such as well-being and cross-eyed, while some are open in one form but not in another. For example, long term is open as a noun (e.g., he’s in it for the long term) but hyphenated as an adjective (this is a long-term assignment). A good dictionary will help with usage and spelling, including, in many cases, hyphenation.

The Chicago Manual of Style editors recommend Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. If you often write for periodicals, you may be more familiar with Associated Press Style, which calls for Webster’s New World College Dictionary.

For her book Your Own Words, Barbara Walraff surveyed dictionaries and found the one that’s built into MS Word is sufficient for most writers. If you’re a Mac user, you have the Dictionary app, which includes the New Oxford American Dictionary, which Walraff also rates highly.

The website OneLook is an excellent resource for word nerds, since it searches multiple dictionaries at once, including slang dictionaries like Wordnik and the not-safe-for-work Urban Dictionary.

Mignon Fogarty, aka Grammar Girl, has a great article about hyphens. Here’s another good article, at AP vs. Chicago: “Compounds Ending with a Preposition or Adverb: Open, Hyphenated, or Solid.”

Just to confuse matters, sometimes spelling is dependent upon your style book of choice. More on that next time.

Don’t neglect punctuation and usage on your blog

Back in the day, amateur bloggers could often get away with sloppy craft. The novelty of the medium meant readers were very forgiving. Even today, the readers of someone’s personal blog may not care about slips such as using intrical to mean integral. But the more professional your blog is, the more you’re expected to maintain high standards of craft.

Most business people are good writers. They’ve had to be to succeed in school and work. And people who self-identify as writers usually write very strong prose. Paying close attention to the quality of your writing is a must if you’re blogging to build your business or platform.

Kathy Ide, founder of The Christian PEN Proofreaders and Editors Network, coined the term PUGS to refer to the primary elements of craft: Punctuation, Usage, Grammar, and Spelling. Today, let’s look at the first two. We’ll tackle Grammar and Spelling next time.

punctuation

Illustration © fotomatrix • Fotolia

Punctuation

Punctuation is hard. The section on commas in The Chicago Manual of Style is 14 pages long. I think this complexity is what keeps copy editors in business. My Comma Cheat Sheet contains the bare minimum you need to know about commas, and it’s still almost a whole page.

I’ve written before about punctuation, so I won’t repeat myself here. If you want to learn more about punctuation, Proofreading Secrets of Best-Selling Authors is a great resource. The Copyeditor’s Handbook contains more on the subject than most writers need. If you really want to get into it, you can find Chicago on the reference shelf at your local library. Punctuation is covered in Chapter 6.

Usage

When editors speak of usage, we’re talking about using words correctly. Make sure the word you write is the word you mean. One commonly confused pair of words is trooper (the guys employed by the state to patrol the highways) and trouper (an actor in a traveling company). When you say someone’s a trouper, it’s that second sense you’re after—the idea that they are a dependable performer who believes the show must go on, no matter what. Law enforcement is not part of that idiom.

Some other common confusables:

Principal (a leader, or the first part of something, e.g., an investment) and principle (a tenet)

Throws (as in a ball) and throes (as in agony)

Roll (a list, or a bread served with dinner) and role (a part you play)

Rack (as in the torture device) and wrack (a shipwreck). Brains and nerves are racked. If something is destroyed, people sometimes use the cliched term wrack and ruin. Smart writers like you will come up with something more original.

The Oxford Dictionaries website has a good long list of commonly confused words.

If you must use jargon or industry-specific language, define the terms. Yes, people in your field probably already know them. But assume that as least some of your readers are newbies. If there are a lot of them, you can include a glossary. For example, an article about investing would define terms like stop-loss order and ROI.

For more about usage, including some books on the topic, see this post: Watch your language usage.