Friday, January 29, 2010

Learning from Mistakes

I've been busy the last week working on two new novels. One is a YA, the other is an adult mystery. Writing these two new books has made me realize all the mistakes I made with the first drafts of Eternal Starling. Eternal Starling was my first book and I was learning as I wrote. I feel like my writing has improved dramatically because of my mistakes and what I learned from them, so I thought it might help my other writer friends to post about some of those issues.

1. Contractions!!! Who knew these silly things can be the difference between your dialogue sounding authentic, or forced. Throughout college and for the past eight years, I've worked in the professional writing world where contractions are a sign of poor writing. But in fiction, if you don't use contractions, your dialogue sounds crazy. I'd know, mine was almost contractionless when my beta editor Amazing Ashley got a hold of it. Which leads me to another point...

2. Read out loud! There are so many things you catch by actually hearing what you wrote. Awkward pauses, phrases that don't fit, contractions that aren't being used. I'm not saying break out your manuscript and force your dog and significant other to listen to a 325 page reading, but if you have a section that doesn't seem to be working, read it out loud and more often than not, it will help you fix the problem.

3. Awhile. This is a tricky little word and honestly, until Amazing Ashley pointed it out, I thought it was always one word. It's not. The rule I've read about it says that it's one word if you mean a short period of time, and two words if you mean a longer period of time (usually defined as more than an hour). A good rule of thumb for it is whether the word 'for' precedes awhile. If you say for a while, then it's always two words. If there's not a for in front of awhile, it's up to you whether you decide to use it as one word or two.

4. Painless Grammar. When Amazing Ashley finished editing Eternal Starling she gave me a copy of a reference book that looks like it should be given to a third grader. I take comfort in the fact that Amazing Ashley also recommends said third grader book to her college English students. Painless Grammar was so helpful to me while I tried to remember grammar rules, especially because I've been using AP Stylebook rules for so long in my career. For fiction and even non-fiction writing, it seems like most editors tend to follow the guidelines in the Chicago Manual of Style. And if you pick up the Chicago Manual of Style to look for rules, I wish you well. Trying to find information in that massive reference manual is harder than finding the Fountain of Youth.

5. Italics. Should you use them? And if you do should you underline them? I know some agents abhor italics, others don't mind them. Some agents say that if they ask for a submission they want italic words underlined instead of italicized, others don't. This is one of those rules that you just have to research to find out what the agent wants. In all the submissions I've sent, I've left the italic words italicized because the agents haven't stipulated one way or another. But like I said, it differs depending on the agent.

Those are all things I can think of for now. I'll add more as I remember them though. What about you wordsmiths? What did you realize you needed to fix as you were writing/revising your manuscripts?


  1. Oy, the italics thing... I thought underlined was standard, so I went through the whole thing...Now I have to go through and make a non-underlined version for Those agents ;))

    Seriously though, thanks for these nuggets. Good luck!

    I've realized how often I use the words 'suddenly' and... 'realized.' I actually did a word search in an effort to eliminate them from my latest WIP. I saw that most of the actions that were happening 'suddenly' weren't actually all that sudden. Weird. The worst culprit: "Suddenly realized." *twitch*

    Also, second only to Suddenly, my favorite adverb is, apparently, 'swiftly.'

    Go figure. Happy writing!

  2. I'm amazed at anybody who can work on two different projects at once. I can only focus on one, and sometimes thats not enough. Hats off to you.

  3. Jess-LOL about suddenly. I did the same thing with 'glance' and 'looked'. I had to use the find feature to change them too. If you've already underlined the italics in your ms. I would keep it that way unless an agent specifically asks for the italicized words to not be underlined. Really I think most agents don't care one way or the other. I wouldn't go to the effort unless one of the few who do care ask for words to be italicized.

    DL-I think I might be a little nuts to try writing two novels at once. I've never done it before but it seems to be working so far and it's nice to be able to go back and forth between two stories.

  4. You forgot to put that Ashley also recommends Painless Grammar for herself! Honestly, it's such a pain in the butt and there are much better things to be doing with our laughing really hard :)