Grammar for Fiction Writers

Homophone of the Month: Complement vs. Compliment

editors-cornerBy Chris Saylor

Most of us learn to speak the language before we learn to read it. As such, it’s no surprise that, when two words sound the same, we sometimes have a difficult time telling them apart. Usually these words are spelled differently but pronounced the same way. We call these homophones.

For one of my monthly features, I’ll be covering homophones. I’m going to explain the different meanings, and whenever I can, I’ll give you little tricks to help you remember the difference between them. If nothing else, you’ll at least realize going forward that these two words might be confused, and you’ll know when to look up the correct meaning.

Today we will be looking at complement vs. compliment.

According to Merriam-Webster, complement means “something that completes something else or makes it better” or “the usual number or quantity of something that is needed or used.” Below are two examples of the word:

My wife is an amazing person, and she complements me well. (She both completes me and makes me better.)

The ship’s complement of Marines readied itself for battle.

On the other hand, compliment means “a remark that says something good about someone or something” or “an action that expresses admiration or approval.” Below is an example of the word:

My wife complimented me on my shirt and tie combination. (She said it looked good.)

Now to try to help you remember the difference. For complement, remember that it takes at least two things to complete each other, and so the word has two E’s.

What words do you have trouble telling apart? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll make sure to feature them later.

Every Saturday for the foreseeable future, I’ll be here in the Editor’s Corner, simplifying some of these grammar concepts for you and showing you how they specifically apply to your fiction. Coming up next week is Using Whom in Fiction.

Want to hire Chris for a proofread or copy edit? You can find out more about him at https://saylorediting.wordpress.com, or you can email him to talk about rates and availability at christopher.saylor21 [at] gmail.com. You might also want to check out the book he co-wrote with Marcy, Grammar for Fiction Writers, available at Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, or Apple iBooks.

Image Credit: Dave Di Biase/www.freeimages.com

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How to Punctuate Dialogue

editors-cornerBy Chris Saylor

It’s easy for fiction writers to get tripped up on when to use a period, where that comma should go, and how to even use all the other forms of punctuation correctly. The truth is, you don’t need to know what every piece of punctuation does when you’re writing fiction. But you do need to know a few important aspects (your proofreader or copy editor can handle the rest).

(If you’re curious about why you should even hire a proofreader or copy editor, stay tuned—I’ll be writing about that soon.)

Today I’ll be walking you through the basics of how to punctuate your dialogue correctly.

Although it might seem nitpicky, incorrect punctuation in dialogue can have a significant negative effect on your writing. Choosing the correct form of punctuation for your dialogue will make your writing smoother, more professional-looking, and easier to understand.

First up is dialogue ending with a tag.

When writing a snippet of dialogue that ends with a tag (a word such as said or shouted), you should end the dialogue with a comma. For example:

“I love watching football,” Chris said.

When writing a question or exclamation, use a question mark or exclamation mark without a comma. For example:

“Do you like watching football?” Chris asked.

(Note that I could have swapped “asked” for “said” and still been correct.)

Next up is dialogue split by a tag.

When writing a sentence that is divided by a tag, use a comma after the snippet of dialogue (even if a comma wouldn’t naturally go there without the tag in place) and after the tag. For example:

“I almost hate being a Redskins fan,” Chris said, “because they haven’t been good in a long time.”

If the first segment of dialogue is a complete sentence, use a period after the tag and start the subsequent sentence with a capital letter. For example:

“I love the Redskins,” Chris said. “I’ve been a fan since I was five years old.”

Next up is ending a piece of dialogue with an em dash.

You should use an em dash for dialogue that is cut off. Make sure that you don’t use any other punctuation with the em dash. (An em dash is the longest of dashes: – is a regular dash, – is an en dash, and — is an em dash. If you want to know when–and how–to use all these different dashes, let me know in the comments.) For example:

“I love—”

“We don’t talk about Dallas in this household, and you know it.”

Next up is dialogue that trails off. You should use ellipses ( … ) in these situations.

“But I don’t…” He averted his eyes. “I know you hate Dallas. You don’t have to keep reminding me about it.”

What punctuation do you struggle with the most? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll address it in the future.

Every Saturday for the foreseeable future, I’ll be here in the Editor’s Corner, simplifying some of these grammar concepts for you and showing you how they specifically apply to your fiction. Coming up next week is my Homophone of the Month (complement vs. compliment).

Want to hire Chris for a proofread or copy edit? You can find out more about him at https://saylorediting.wordpress.com, or you can email him to talk about rates and availability at christopher.saylor21 [at] gmail.com. You might also want to check out the book he co-wrote with Marcy, Grammar for Fiction Writers, available at Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, or Apple iBooks.

Image Credit: Dave Di Biase/www.freeimages.com

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Should Fiction Writers Care About Grammar?

editors-cornerBy Chris Saylor

Some people believe that, when you’re writing fiction, you can throw all the rules of grammar out the window. We’ll call this the It’s Not Important camp. They say that grammar is too fickle—the rules of grammar are seemingly in constant flux, and they’re too nitpicky to begin with, especially for fiction writers. Nobody speaks with perfect grammar. Nobody writes perfectly. In their view, what you say is more important than how you say it.

Another camp (we’ll call them the Grammar Police camp) believes that grammar rules are absolute—fixed, unchanging, the Ten Commandments of writing (regardless of type or genre of writing). I always goes before E, except after C, or in words such as neighbor and weigh. The rules are the rules, and should be followed to the letter.

Both of these camps have the potential to hurt fiction and fiction writers if their views are followed. I personally fall into the Be a Master First camp. Those in that camp believe that it’s okay to break grammar rules as long as you’ve demonstrated mastery of the language, because doing so earns you “street cred” in terms of getting away with breaking rules. You’ve shown that you are a master of following the rules and have only broken the rules for dramatic or emphasis purposes. It also means you actually know when it’s okay to break the rules, what rules can or cannot be broken and when, and which rules should never be broken.

Being a master first allows you to create fiction that is clear, easy to read, and approachable.

And let’s face it—showing mastery of the language will make readers much less likely to put down your creative effort and blast you for poor writing on social media and in reviews. The thing that will get you poor reviews the fastest is poor editing. If you want people to appreciate your efforts, you need to ensure that your work is grammatically correct. Your ego—and hopefully your bank account—will thank you.

Every Saturday for the foreseeable future, I’ll be here in the Editor’s Corner, simplifying some of these grammar concepts for you and showing you how they specifically apply to your fiction. Coming up next week is How to Punctuate Dialogue.

Want to hire Chris for a proofread or copy edit? You can find out more about him at https://saylorediting.wordpress.com, or you can email him to talk about rates and availability at christopher.saylor21 [at] gmail.com. You might also want to check out the book he co-wrote with Marcy, Grammar for Fiction Writers, available at Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, or Apple iBooks.

Image Credit: Dave Di Biase/www.freeimages.com

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How a Novel Is Like a Human Body

how-a-novel-is-like-the-human-bodyBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

I’ve come to believe that part of the reason writers can work for years on a book and still have it be unready for publication is because we don’t always understand the different layers that need to go into a great story.

A lot of this happens because most of us learn writing piecemeal. We read a blog post here, attend a writer’s conference workshop there. We don’t usually have someone sit us down and explain the anatomy of a book to us in a 101 type fashion.

(If you’re an experienced writer, don’t click away. This might be a refresher for you, but it might also help you understand story in a new way, or it might simply give you another way to explain it to a newer writer.)

So today I want to break down the anatomy of a story for you using the analogy of a human body. I’m going to start from big picture and work my way down.

Protagonist and Plot

Our protagonist is the character whose goal drives the actions (plot) of the story and whose life changes through those events.

Where this tends to trip writers up is in a fundamental misunderstanding about how the two relate. The purpose of the external plot events is to force the protagonist to change. Throwing random events—however interesting we might think they should be—at our protagonist doesn’t make for a good plot. Throwing events at our protagonist that don’t force them to think, feel, and grow doesn’t make for a good plot. Our protagonist should change somehow through the pursuit of their goal.

The protagonist—with their individual backstory, personality, and brokenness—also needs to drive the plot forward. The choices and decisions they make need to matter. And if anyone else were the protagonist of the story, that plot should play out differently than it currently does. If you could swap your protagonist for someone else without anything significant changing in your plot, then something is wrong.

I look at these like the muscles and bones in a body. If the muscles in a limb atrophy, the limb doesn’t work. If the bones in a limb turn to jello or break, the limb doesn’t work. In other words, if there’s something wrong with the muscles or the bones, it doesn’t matter how amazing the other layers are.

And one is not more important than the other.

Sentence-Level Writing Craft

Sentence-level writing craft is elements like showing vs. telling, dialogue, point of view errors, and so on. It’s what most people think about when they talk about learning to write. It also tends to be what we spend the most time on, especially in the beginning.

In our human body analogy, this is the skin. People can be distracted by the condition of our skin regardless of how strong our muscles and bones are. Like it or not, people judge us by how our skin looks. A kid in high school with bad acne is less likely to be popular than a kid with flawless skin. It can happen, but they have to be absolutely amazing in some other way.

It’s the same with our books.

Grammar and Punctuation

Grammar and punctuation is what a copy editor works on. It’s the small-scale details of commas, typos, misused words, and awkward phrases. Most writers think of this level when they think about hiring an editor. 

If we’re talking about a person, it’s the hair, make-up, and clothes. It’s the polish. In our lives, if we were walking into a professional situation where we wanted to be taken seriously, we wouldn’t show up in ratty sweats and bed head, smelling of BO. We’d try to make our best first impression by taking care with our appearance. That’s what good grammar and punctuation do for our book. If it’s not working, readers are less likely to take us seriously. They’ll be distracted by it.

(I spend most of my time on this blog teaching you about the two higher levels, but I want to help you in all ways so I’ve enlisted a regular guest columnist. Starting this Saturday, we’ll have The Editor’s Corner, where you’ll learn about grammar and punctuation for fiction writers.)

Do you have another way of thinking about story that helps you understand it better? Or do you think one level or story is more important than the others? I’d love to hear your opinion!

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Check out my Busy Writer’s Guides such as Description, Deep Point of View, or Internal Dialogue.

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How to Save Money on Editing Your Book

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Self-publishing your work means all the profits are yours, but it also means all the costs are yours. The two universally accepted areas where you shouldn’t skimp on quality are your cover and editing.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t keep your costs to a minimum when it comes to editing without sacrificing quality. Today, in my guest post at Janice Hardy’s Fiction University, I’m going give you tips that can help you save money no matter what level or levels of editing you need.

Click here to read the rest of How to Save Money on Editing Your Book.

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Grammar for Fiction Writers, is now available from Amazon, Kobo, or Smashwords. (You might also be interested in checking out Mastering Showing and Telling in Your Fiction.)

Both books are available in print and ebook forms.

I’d love to have you sign up to receive my posts by email. All you need to do is enter your email address below and hit the “Follow” botton.

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Kiss Your “As” Goodbye: A Simple Grammar Trick for Better Fiction

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

A good grade in a high school or college English class doesn’t necessarily translate into the ability to write great fiction, so it’s easy for us to mistakenly think understanding grammar isn’t important for fiction writing at all. Isn’t that what a copy editor is for? Won’t they fix all your mistakes?

A copy editor will fix our actual errors, but some of the rules we were taught in English class will actually hurt our fiction writing, not help it. And some easy grammatical tricks that our copy editor won’t do for us can improve our fiction.

In my work as an editor, one of the most common mistakes I see made by fiction writers is the reversal of the necessary order of cause coming before effect, action coming before reaction.

When we reverse the two so that the effect comes first or comes at the same time as the cause, our readers will feel thrown off-balance and disconnected from our writing, even if they can’t always explain why. In real life, cause always comes before effect. The effect can’t come before what caused it. They expect the same in fiction (unless we’re writing a science fiction story with a temporal paradox, of course).

If you’d like to read the rest of this post, please join me at Kristen Lamb’s Warrior Writers blog.

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Five Words That Weaken Your Writing

Weak Words

Image Credit: Andrzej Pobiedziski (freeimage.com)

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Last week, I released my newest Busy Writer’s Guide, Grammar for Fiction Writers, so today I wanted to give you a taste of what you can find inside. This is a section from “Chapter Nine: Weak Words.” I’m going to share five unspecific words that weaken your writing.

Weak words are words that don’t pull their own weight in a sentence. Most of the time, they’re useless. So useless, in fact, that, by taking them out, you make the sentence stronger.

At first this might seem like a strange chapter to include in a grammar book. Technically speaking, there’s nothing wrong with weak words. But this is a book on grammar for fiction writers, and so one of the things we have to look at in terms of grammar is tightening up our writing and bringing it to life by removing useless words from our sentences.

Both weasel words and helping and state-of-being verbs could have been included under unspecific words because of how they tend to tell rather than show, but I broke them up because of the slight differences between them. In this section, I want to focus on five words that are weak specifically because of how vague and generic they are.

Got/Get

Get (and its forms) isn’t always wrong, but you want to be careful because it can lead to confusion. It means “to receive,” “to take possession,” or “to obtain.” However, some people also use it in place of have.

Let me show you how this becomes a problem.

I got five dollars.

Does this mean “I have five dollars,” as in “I currently possess five dollars”? Or does it mean “someone gave me five dollars”?

To avoid vagueness like this, you should rewrite your sentence.

Grandpa gave me five dollars.

I have only five dollars to my name right now.

As you go through your writing, don’t assume that your got sentences are clear. Make sure they are.

Things

Like got, things isn’t wrong, but we often use it as the lazy way to escape putting in the work to define what we mean by things. Things could stand in for problems or reasons, which are two very different things.

When your character says, “I have things to do,” what does she mean? Does she mean she has errands to run? A house to clean? A doctor’s appointment? The only time you should have a character saying they have “things to do” is if they’re being intentionally vague, such as if they don’t want their girlfriend to know that they’re planning a surprise proposal. But even then, why not have them give a more specific excuse?

Moved/Took/Looked

How many times have you written something like this?

He moved across the room.

Grammatically, there’s nothing wrong with this sentence. The problem comes from its vagueness. It doesn’t give the reader a clear picture of the way your character is moving.

Look at these three possible types of movement.

He shuffled across the room.

He stalked across the room.

He sauntered across the room.

In each sentence, we have him moving across the room, but they’re extremely different types of movement. Don’t leave your reader guessing.

Both took and looked fall into the same category as moved.

She took the letter from him.

This doesn’t show us what’s happening.

She snatched the letter from him.

She delicately plucked the letter from him using only her thumb and forefinger, as if she were afraid contact with it would contaminate her.

Two different emotions are behind those ways of taking the letter.

Here’s the one I see most often in my editing work.

She looked at him.

But how did she look at him? Was it a furtive glance from the corner of her eyes as if she didn’t want to be caught? Was she glaring? Was she giving him an I-dare-you-to-try-it look?

None of these unspecific words are technically wrong, but you’re shortchanging your reader and yourself.

For more of Grammar for Fiction Writers, please pick up a copy from Amazon, Kobo, or Smashwords. (You might also be interested in checking out Mastering Showing and Telling in Your Fiction.)

Both books are available in print and ebook forms.

I’d love to have you sign up to receive my posts by email. All you need to do is enter your email address below and hit the “Follow” botton.

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Have You Committed Word Crimes?

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

My next Busy Writer’s Guide is now out, and to celebrate, here’s some Weird Al Yankovic!

Now, if you’re wondering why I’m playing a song about word crimes to celebrate the release of my newest book, it’s because the book is Grammar for Fiction Writers

Grammar for Fiction Writers

It’s not your same old boring grammar guide! This book is fun, fast, and focused on writing amazing fiction.

The world of grammar is huge, but fiction writers don’t need to know all the nuances to write well. In fact, some of the rules you were taught in English class will actually hurt your fiction writing, not help it.

Grammar for Fiction Writers won’t teach you things you don’t need to know. It’s all about the grammar that’s relevant to you as you write your novels and short stories.

Here’s what you’ll find inside:
Punctuation Basics including the special uses of dashes and ellipses in fiction, common comma problems, how to format your dialogue, and untangling possessives and contractions.
Knowing What Your Words Mean and What They Don’t including commonly confused words, imaginary words and phrases, how to catch and strengthen weak words, and using connotation and denotation to add powerful subtext to your writing.
Grammar Rules Every Writer Needs to Know and Follow such as maintaining an active voice and making the best use of all the tenses for fast-paced writing that feels immediate and draws the reader in.
Special Challenges for Fiction Writers like reversing cause and effect, characters who are unintentionally doing the impossible, and orphaned dialogue and pronouns.
Grammar “Rules” You Can Safely Ignore When Writing Fiction

Due to popular demand, I’ve made Grammar for Fiction Writers available in both print and ebook form.

You can buy Grammar for Fiction Writers at Amazon.com, at the Amazon site for your own country, at Kobo, or at Smashwords. More sites will be coming soon! Like all the full-length books in my Busy Writer’s Guides series, it’s priced at $2.99 at Amazon.com. If you’d like to buy it at Smashwords for $2.99, use the coupon code FB64J. (That coupon code is good until the end of September.)

I’d appreciate it if you’d share this post on Facebook, Google+, or wherever you hang out. And remember to add your favorite writing hashtag when you tweet! (Suggestions: #amwriting #amediting #writetip #MyWANA)

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