Category Archives: writing

What exactly do they mean when they say “show, don’t tell”?

As a copy editor who does a lot of developmental editing with indie authors, Show Don’t Tell is one of the things that I find myself mentioning a lot. Problem is, a catchphrase like that is so easy to say and so hard to explain in only a few words without using examples and re-writing material so the author can see the difference – and I find that authors can sometimes be extremely touchy about someone rewriting their pages for them (they are, after all, that author’s creation – and therefore offspring of a sort – and parents have been known to go to battle over something derogatory said about their child).

When authors ask me how to go about showing instead of telling this is the advice I give them:

Use more dialogue to get the material moving along if you want things to move quickly, rather than using short sentences and paragraphs that tell us what you want us to know.

Don’t be afraid of adding lots of volume to your manuscript by adding descriptions (and remember that descriptive passages should engage all our senses, not just the eyes and ears), but do maintain a balance.

Letting the reader figure out what you want them to know on their own engages the reader more fully – don’t be afraid to add information later on instead of loading it on the front end of the story. Making the reader wonder about what is going on increases tension and therefore is likely to make them want to read more to discover the answers. This does not mean adding lots and lots of flashbacks – it means providing back story in small doses as you write the material, rather than all at once in the first chapter.

Along with the notion of adding tension, self-reflection on personal issues adds tension and allows a writer to tell rather than show when writing in first person, specifically because of that aspect. If an author has a very difficult time with the ‘show, don’t tell’ dilemma, changing writing style to a first person point of view can alleviate that somewhat.

Anything that is passive is usually ‘tell,’ so avoid passive writing – more about that in another post, but basically anything that uses forms of the verb is (was, be, has been, etc.) is usually passive in nature rather than active. Writers who have written a lot of non-fiction tend to use passive voice frequently since that is what is properly used in reports, or textbooks. It is sometimes harder for a technical writer to write fiction than it is for someone who has never written anything at all to do so.

I also usually direct people to a couple of websites for examples and information, so here are a couple of those.

Grammar Girl is always great at giving good examples and clear explanations: http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/show-dont-tell?page=all

This site is for grade school teachers, teaching writing to young students, but it is very clear and concise because of that: http://www.scholastic.com/teachers/article/show-dont-tell-whiteboard-writing-lesson

I also like the Purdue OWL, but was disappointed on this subject – the links were not opening for me or were imbedded in general advice:

https://owl.english.purdue.edu/sitemap/

And here are a couple of other links:

http://www.dailywritingtips.com/show-dont-tell/

http://www.sfwriter.com/ow04.htm

http://users.wirefire.com/tritt/tip1.html

In fact, if you search “show don’t tell” you get a lot of links – even a very nice explanation from Wikipedia:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Show,_don’t_tell

Perhaps it is not surprising to find that having references for the information I am providing is probably reassuring to authors. It may surprise you to know that I find a great deal of comfort in being able to point to a reference and say: “See, they said it too.” After all, knowing I am right about something doesn’t PROVE I am right about it, it is just my opinion in the end – but pointing at others whose work is respected and being able to say they said it too (or sometimes, they said it first) gives information more credence. Something for non-fiction writers to remember, even if what you are writing is a blog.

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Search yourself lately?

I have lately done a lot of internet searches for a multitude of reasons (fact-checking for manuscripts, research and background for specific topics, refreshing my memory, etc.). I have found myself checking websites to ensure they are still available/actually exist (another form of fact-checking). I also found myself trying to relocate a website about a specific person…

Then, for a lark, I decided to check on my own name and see what came up.

The only things that came up on Yahoo, Google, Bing, and even Ask.com (though there wasn’t much on that one) all seemed to relate to me or my family. All the links looked unremarkable, although there were even some that were promising (there were a few acknowledgements in books that I hadn’t been aware of being acknowledged in floating around out there – one from years and years ago), so I was breezing through the little mini-blurbs that pop up with the keywords highlighted without actually clicking on them, and was getting some warm fuzzies from all the nice things being said (and grimacing at the photos of me, ew…). I saw one place and then another that said something along the lines of “We found 1 people with the name of Ronda Swolley…” and discovered that, unlikely as it may be, I think I am the only Ronda Swolley in all the internet – at least it sure seems that way, LOL!

Everything that popped up was about me, except one odd little bit about an arrest report in Council Bluffs, Iowa. When I first saw that I was a bit peeved, thinking someone had falsely given my information to the police. I don’t recall ever being on the wrong side of the law – or at least getting caught on the wrong side of the law. My misspent youth probably had a few minor infractions I may or may not recall under pressure, and there was a parking ticket deluge that was my ex-husband’s fault which resulted in a warrant of appearance on me because the vehicle was in my name (his sneaky way of getting me to sign the title over to him). However, the way search engines work made it seem as though that link was about me when it wasn’t even about my name! When I tried to track that police report down to see what it said I had been arrested for it was actually a list of reports with my first name and another last name on one report, and then a few lines down someone else with my last name but a different first name had been charged with a misdemeanor violation involving having too many dogs. At least that is what it sounded like. I know who it was (a relative of my husband) but have no idea why she would have had enough dogs to be charged with any kind of violation!

I wonder how many people have seen something like that about another person and jumped to conclusions about it without ever taking that step of clicking on the link to investigate the information. I know that I will be less likely to jump to conclusions in future, bad or good, and more likely to actually investigate the links I find!

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Steps to Book Publication

I can give you self-publishers and indie authors an idea of the order of how things get done on the industry side, because I do a lot of work for a book design company, although I know that I do not know everything. Since you are doing it all on your own I thought you might like an idea of some of what is involved behind the scenes.

The first parts are for the author to do, the rest is where support personnel come in: beta readers (usually other authors or writing groups), agents (if you are lucky), publication editors, structural editors, copy editors, keyboarders or formatters, interior designers, cover artists, proofreaders, and printers. Some of these don’t apply to everyone, some apply to anyone who wants to produce a quality product, some to only print books, some to eBooks, some to all books, and some may never apply to the indie author who is self-publishing but can give a little bit of insight into the book industry.

  1. Write the first draft.
  2. Re-write 3 or 5 times.
  3. Get some beta readers (you can join an author’s group online or see if there is a local writer’s group in your area; colleges usually have one and often will welcome non-student writers).
  4. Do another draft.
  5. Before you decide if you want to publish an eBook or send the manuscript to a publication company or agent, you need to ask yourself what is best for you. If you are going to self-publish there are a lot of steps to take before doing the self-publish, if you want to do it right. If you are going to submit to an agent, you might want to get an intro to that agent from another author (another good reason to join a writer’s group). If you are going to submit it to a publishing house, do some research and determine which publishers print the books in your genre, what their guidelines for submission are, what they require for print and format for submissions, and how many copies they expect you to send if it is going to be hard copy – this is usually available on their websites but you may need to enquire. If you are submitting to an agent or publication company, you might want to have a structural editor or copy editor look it over before you submit it. Ask yourself this: How many authors submit books to publishers every year? And will they even bother to read my submission if it is not structurally sound and ‘clean copy’ (meaning minimal typos and mechanical errors)?
  6. Send it to the structural editor for big picture info (unless you have a line or copy editor that can pull double duty and provide that service as well, or the agent is doing that for you).
  7. Do another draft.
  8. Now you need to get a copy editor to find the things that beta readers never notice, since they are usually authors and miss the same things you would. Structural editors focus on the big picture, and don’t really attend to punctuation and grammar unless it smacks them in the forehead. The copy editor will (hopefully, if you get a decent one) catch grammar, mechanics, and even some of the structural issues.
  9. Run through the corrections and decide what to keep and what to toss out. Notice things that are consistent issues so you can work on improving your writing.
  10. Do yet another draft – you are almost done doing drafts!
  11. Get an editorial read done, though this is not always needed. Usually a copy editor can double at this part, doing a follow up of things that have been changed from the original to the current, but it is not a substitute for the copy edit unless you are an exceptionally clean writer (i.e., great grasp of grammar, understand punctuation and other mechanics of writing, and don’t need to rely on spell check or grammar check, etc.). This step can and often does follow the next step.
  12. Now keying, formatting, and proofreading – in that order. Proofreaders are there to catch the things that aren’t keyed right, and if you are using a service to format they should include proofreaders unless you are providing a fully keyed product ready to format. Some authors use formatting programs from different sources and do it themselves. This means you need to compare the finished product to the manuscript you started with and either have a proofreader go through it, or PROOFREAD it yourself, for sections that went missing in the formatting or were added incorrectly; as well as correct word breaks, change things that are not well broken in the page, tweak and twist things into place so the page has improved continuity and flow and visual appeal. Meanwhile watching for the inevitable errors that everyone so far has missed – because they are there. Keep in mind that most professional proofreaders do NOT actually read the book – their job is to make sure that there were no changes made between the manuscript authorized for print and the keying and formatting of the manuscript. They are required to work at such a fast pace that they do not really pay attention to content, although they are stellar at noticing niggly little typographical or mechanical errors in the ‘final’ manuscript. This is why it is that nearly thirty years ago I failed at proofreading, which was my first position in the book industry – I kept reading the manuscript and it slowed me down.
  13. Next, cover design – even if it was really the first thing you conceptualized – but get the blurb checked by your beta readers, copy editor, and maybe even some random folks out there in the world, before doing the cover design. That way you know you can get at least a one-line blurb inset into the front, and the full blurb or else reviews onto the back. This is often done simultaneously with the format and design of the interior, in the event that art needs to be consistent throughout. BUT if you are paying for one thing at a time and working to self-publish, that sometimes is not financially possible. Sometimes a very simple cover is better than a really complicated one – as long as the artwork is original or intriguing.
  14. Publish it! This is assuming you know that you are indeed self-publishing. At this point, having paid for all the steps up until now yourself, you probably better know that you are self-publishing or you just wasted a lot of money, because publishing companies use their own software and will re-format and re-proofread, and maybe even go back and re-edit the whole thing. Then they will determine what cover art will be best able to attract the largest portion of the intended audience, and they will change your pre-conceived cover design to suit the demographics of the audience that THEY think your book is targeting.
  15. Don’t forget to add an insert promoting previous or upcoming books in the front or back, as well as a note that tells us something about you, the author (with links to websites for readers to visit to see about upcoming books or other books already published as well as information on you, how to contact you, and what things you are up to – like book signings or conventions you are going to attend). Knowing something about you makes you real to the reader and they will become fans because you respond to THEM.
  16. So – you next need to find that online publication promoter, or hire a printer to print your book and try to sell hard copy.
  17. NOW start looking for avenues of getting it out there into the internet as a viable piece of reading material if you haven’t been doing that all along. Have a website? Even if it is one of those freebie ones? Post the titles of your work and your upcoming work. Got a blog? Use it. Got Facebook? Start a business page as an author. Don’t know any beta readers? Start a group of your own on, and police it to keep your name out there and visible, even if all you do is post the list of rules once a month. Use your author name on all of these things. You want to interconnect everything as much as you possibly can so you increase the possibility of reaching more people!
  18. Remember – the fans and readers are the ones that pay for the books you slaved over, so make sure that you find a way to let them have a voice! The wide variety of available social networking tools out there will help you reach your target audience if you use good tags on your blog, occasionally promote your site, and you actually respond to the comments where appropriate! Having a running conversation on your page or blog with several fans at the same time keeps you in their email and therefore in their minds. Ideally you have been posting running commentary on how long before the book will hit the market and where it will be available, so you have folks already wanting to buy it before it is even on the shelf/website!

Hopefully that all made sense and will be helpful to someone. Long winded today, aren’t I? I re-did this thing four times before I was totally happy with it, then edited it three times once I posted it…

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L. Jagi Lamplighter

This is a link to a series of writing tips, tricks, and techniques posted by L. Jagi Lamplighter, a published author and I hope a friend. The link is posted with permission.She has a lot of really good advice for writers of fiction.

http://www.ljagilamplighter.com/works/nonfiction/writing-tips/

She touches on things that range from how to bring a character to life, to how to hook a reader and keep them hooked, and more.

The art is the cover for her newest book, not yet in print.

Image

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Writing in English…

Someone once asked me how I knew that they were writing in English but it wasn’t their first language. I didn’t really have to think about it, but at the same time I did. What I mean is that I knew instinctively that English wasn’t their first language, but I had to think about how I knew it.

Many of the things that tell me a writer is ESL (English as a Second Language) are things that just blare out at me and seem obvious, but could just as easily be really bad grammar or sloppy writing.

Things like inaccuracies in tenses, or mixed tenses, are a common error that many writers make – but mixing them consistently, even in the same sentence, is one of the signs that the writer is not used to using the vagaries of English in daily life.

Another error that is often seen with ESL writers is a lack of articles – not the articles you write for magazines or newspapers, the articles you use in grammar. These are the common ones: a, an, and the. The more articles that are missing, the higher the chance is that the author is ESL. Why? Because, in general, unless we write more formally than we speak we tend to write as we speak. We rarely write less formally than we speak unless it is a writing tool that we are using for a specific project. And English speakers may slur their articles in speech (for example, my husband using d’man instead of ‘the man’), but they usually remember to use them in some form or another when talking. On the other hand, many other languages not only don’t always use articles – they don’t even have them.

Then there is the whole pronoun thing…  Some languages imply gender with the word itself, unlike English which has to add a whole other group of words to indicate I, me, we, he, she, it, they, them, her, him, you, etc. When an author never uses pronouns or is not using them correctly, that is one more arrow pointing to the likelihood that they are ESL.

Then there is sentence structure. English tends to be noun-verb in the simplest of sentence forms. Most other languages follow a different placement of sentence structure. Or use words that combine the noun and verb into one word (an example from my extremely rusty Spanish: Vamanos!).  This tends to create confusion in the ESL writer’s sentence structure when it is translated into English, either by them or by a translation engine.

There are likely other things, more subtle cues that I pick up on in punctuation and grammar, but these are the ones that get me wondering. English is a horrendously complicated and difficult language to learn to write in, even for those who speak English as their first language. For those who are writing ESL, it can be a quagmire of complications!

Oh – and ESL applies to those who speak a language other than English as the language they grew up with, as well as to individuals who use sign language in one form or another, and those who are computer geeks (after a while, computer geeks don’t really speak in English anymore, even if they are English speakers – they speak in an abbreviated shorthand and coding in a language that is only known to them and which transcends any language barriers that used to exist).

As a copy editor, I need to be aware that an author is ESL for one major reason: Knowing what to watch for means I won’t make mistakes in the edit, or have to start over partway through as I realize what is going on. As a writer who is trying to write in English when it is not your first language, you can learn to look for these things yourself and improve the final product you produce to increase your ability to target an English speaking population in addition to your own. Or, you can at the least be aware that translation engines do not always give very good results if you rely on them to create your English version of the written product.

I once stuck a bit of Chinese into a translation engine, trying to see what an online Facebook friend was trying to tell me. It came out as something like: the sweet petals of the carrot sat on the fence. This made no sense at all, and when she translated it back to her own language she sent me a very crooked looking not-smiley face and tried again, putting it through her own translator to get something like: fences are carrots sit. We were not talking about carrots, or fences…

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Add Tension!

If there is no tension in a story, who will keep reading past the first few pages? Other than someone paid to read it, of course…

My thoughts on this, take it or leave it.

Tension can be psychological or physical in nature.

There is no doubt that, handled correctly, throwing your protagonist into a weather catastrophe on page one can be a great tension creator (it can also be passé). The same can be said of a physical altercation, disaster in space, being caught in a house fire, finding a dead body, being lost at sea, or many other physical situations that can create tension. Fights and chase scenes are exceptionally good at introducing physical tension, but they are not the only methods. A protagonist experiencing a mystical event outside the realm of reality, which they treat as either common place or as a platform for wondering about their own sanity (thereby introducing psychological as well as physical tension), is a wonderful launch-pad with a lot of potential.

Developing an antagonist to pit your protagonist against, be it another character or a force of nature, is a great source for tension. If you go that route, be sure to use it fully, with forethought and the intent of working it intricately into the long-term plot. Remember, if your protagonist defeats the antagonist, the series is over – unless there is another antagonist waiting in the wings to step forward and become known. Often, having a vague but exceedingly evil antagonistic presence that is only rarely visited but never really faced during the full series, while having lesser antagonists for each book in the series, is not only a source of tension but also is a method of adding continuity to a series. This has the added benefit of not losing the antagonist totally while still providing the protagonist a chance to prevail against an adversary in each book.

Psychological tension can be more subtle and therefore more easily lost on some of your potential audiences – things like teenage angst, internal conversations of the lead character asking themselves what the right thing is (and do they really want to do it), struggling with major life changes while trying to refuse to accept them, a main character being in love with someone who is somehow unattainable – and not really knowing it even though everyone else around the two characters is waiting for them to get a clue, and so on. These often make great secondary plots, and can add to continuity throughout a series.

There is potential for tension all around you. Find it and develop it into a component of the plot that will capture your readers attention, keep them interested in the plot throughout the entire project, and leave them wondering if there is a sequel in the making.

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What makes a book a salable book? And who should decide?

Second question first: How many people think that the writer is who decides what makes a book salable? The publisher? The editor?  The PR guy in sales? The stores?

I submit that, ultimately, who decides if a book is salable is the reader. WHAT! How can someone who hasn’t read the book yet know how to decide if they should buy it? And furthermore, how would they know what would make it a good purchase? Unfortunately for all of those in the publishing industry (from sales clerk to author) it really is the buyer who makes the decision whether to purchase or not.

This came up recently in discussion with an author (who shall remain nameless but who knows who he is), but it wasn’t the first time the subject had been broached with me.

Psychologically speaking – and having a degree in psychology I can go out on a limb and say that with some sense of confidence and a bit of aplomb – most readers are visual learners by nature (otherwise they would wait for the video to come out). Therefore, the first things they are drawn to are visual things – the cover art, the title, and the blurb (whether it is on the cover, an insert, the advertisement, or the website). Then they may check the first few pages, or maybe they are like me and check a few pages in the middle of the book, to see if the writing style appeals to them. BUT – if they aren’t attracted to the cover and title, you don’t even get them to the point where they will read the blurb; especially in this day and age, where you can flip through hundreds of books in a matter of minutes because they are ‘recommended’ as ‘similar to previous purchases’ on the website where you order your books or eBooks!

My advice to authors, especially indie authors who are trying to be independent and work without the benefit of a publishing company that can market your book in the back inserts of those ‘similar’ books by other authors, is to ask for advice! Ask people what they think of the cover art you choose, and the colors/font/wording of the title. Get a fairly large sample (at least 25 or so) and compare what the people you talk to have to say about it for common themes. Having it relate to the story is a bonus, but attracting interest is the purpose of a cover.

Don’t ask an artist – while art is also a visual format, that doesn’t mean the artist is a reader – and you need to know what a reader is looking for in a book. By all means, have an artist help you design the cover if you can – but get opinions about it from readers!

Have the blurb read by your beta readers, proofreaders, and copy editors AFTER they have read the book, so they can let you know if it is a good representation of the book itself, whether it creates interest without giving away too much about the plot or story line, and if it would be something they would think would be a good lead in to the story itself. THEN have at least a dozen people who are READERS, but have not read your drafts, go over the blurb and see if they would at least find it interesting enough to read. Consider having a one line blurb on the front cover, as well as a full blurb in the insert, on the back page, or in the website or ad for your book.

Until you have a readership and a following, you need to market your book to the buyer in the only way you can. First contact!

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