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Website of author and professional editor Rachelle M. N. Shaw. Find information about her books, her editing services, and her blog, From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing.

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From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing

From Mind to Paper is a blog for writers, editors, and those interested in the English language. It covers a multitude of writing topics, from punctuation and grammar to plot development, character development, and world building. In addition to in-depth articles about various writing topics, this blog also has a number of series posts, which are currently being transformed into a nonfiction series on writing.

Filtering by Category: Blog Series

Developing a Supernatural Edge: Establishing the Genre

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

For a lot of books, the genre is pretty clear the second you peek at its cover. Romance books often sport the image of a young couple or an item that is symbolic of love. Horror books display creepy houses and the like, along with strange fonts that instantly clue you into the book’s content. Supernatural books sometimes swing both ways though. You have beloved series like Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, both of which have editions with well-known covers that depict creatures of fantasy and mythology. But there are also a few series I’ve read whose covers don’t necessarily indicate something paranormal, like April White’s Immortal Descendants series (one I’d highly recommend, by the way). That said, whether or not your book’s artwork depicts its genre, there’s one thing absolutely should: the first chapter. It doesn’t matter if your book is about ghosts or if it’s about elves who have to save the world from blood-sucking witches who are pregnant with the illegitimate son of a werewolf and a hippogriff. Point is, your intentions for the genre need to be transparent by the time the reader hits the second chapter.

Clear Intentions

Making your intentions clear doesn’t mean you should give away the plot. What it does mean is that you need to paint an image for your reader that instantly transports them to a world where they know something funky is up, even if they don’t know what it is right away. One of the best ways to do this is through environment. The first book in the Harry Potter series is an excellent example of this. In book one, we immediately see a multitude of things that let us know what we’re in for: a peculiar cat who can read, people dressed in ridiculous outfits, owls swooping around in broad daylight, a family secret being discussed among strangers, unusual words, street lights disappearing at the flick of silver lighter, a cat who can morph into a woman, and a flying motorcycle. Clearly, this isn’t going to be your average story—and that’s the type of message you want to get across if you’re crafting a supernatural tale.

Strong Characters

Another way to hint at the supernatural genre is by introducing strong characters. It doesn’t matter whether a female or a male is taking the lead; each should hold characteristics that make them unique and memorable in the reader’s mind. Sometimes supernatural series spawn characters that are rather eccentric to do this. Think Sherlock Holmes or the Mad Hatter. One of my favorite eccentric characters is actually the Doctor from Doctor Who. Though he’s a character on a TV show, he is so zany and memorable that he immediately creates a connection with viewers (and other characters) and draws them into his world. Not only that, but a flying police box that’s really an intergalactic spaceship? What about that doesn’t clue you into the fact that the show is supernatural?

Killer Secrets

Just about every good book has one thing in common: secrets. They all reveal a little bit of the plot one page at a time, and after just a few pages, you’ll likely find yourself hooked and dying to know more. So how does one go about doing that? While there are some extraordinarily talented authors who can wing it and weave intricate details into their story as they go (I’ve met a few, and I greatly admire them for their talent), most writers—myself included—have to rely on loads of planning, scheming when and where they’ll drop snippets of subplots for the reader to learn, along with the characters. The trick is to provide readers with just enough information that they can’t bear to put the book down until they find out more. Usually, that information hinges on a secret of some kind, though it doesn’t necessarily have to. However, the end result is often the same: a killer beginning that readers can’t resist.

The Editing Agenda: When Is It Time to Call in a Professional?

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

You’ve written the first draft, you’ve had your friends read through it, and you’ve even edited it a few times yourself. Time to start hunting for a professional editor, right? Well, not quite. First, there are a few steps you should take to ensure your book is at its best so you can find the perfect editor for it.

1. Beta testing. One of the easiest ways to find out if your piece is successful is to hand it over to some beta readers. Ideally, these readers will not have seen any of the drafts up to that point, nor will they know the details of the plot. Some of your beta readers can be your friends, but be sure you also have impartial voices who will provide completely honest feedback, even if it means that your book didn’t work for them. Sometimes that’s tough to swallow, but it’s a crucial step you don’t want to shortchange yourself on. If you can’t rely on honest feedback from your betas, you might end up with a book that is doomed to flop, but you won’t know it until after it’s published and the negative reviews roll in—or until you receive a brutally honest letter from one of the publishers or agents you queried telling you just how bad it really is. That’s not to say this always will be the case. Your book might be totally amazing, and if so, that’s awesome! But to be sure, get a second opinion before you commit to the final steps in the process. Once you hit the “send” button, you can’t take it back.

2. More edits. Once you get feedback from your beta readers, it’s back to the drawing board. A good place to start is with the comments that cropped up more than once. Those are usually the ones most worth listening to, and they should take top priority. Make any necessary adjustments, then scan over the remaining comments. Do they make sense? Are they based on personal opinion, or do they add validity to what you’re trying to accomplish in your piece? Pick and choose those which are both critical and uplifting—the ones that point out the positives in addition to what could be improved. Not all comments will be worthwhile, but the ones that are can vastly improve your manuscript. When you’re done editing your piece—again—or when you no longer know how to fix what’s wrong, that’s when it’s time to seek out a professional.

3. Research. Not all editors are the same. We each specialize in various types of editing and different genres, so you’ll want to find an editor that is the best match for your piece. Querying an editor who primarily deals with sci-fi about a romance novel probably won’t yield great results. Having said that, editors also have varying levels of experience, and you’ll want to find the right one for you. I recommend searching for one with reasonable pricing who is also a qualified professional. Two great sites to look on are Reedsy and 10 Minute Novelists. There are TONS of awesome editors on both, and I’m honored to be one of them. If you still can’t find a good match for your project after searching there, I’ll be glad to help!

4. Commitment. One last step before you send your query: Make sure you’re willing to work hard at improving your manuscript. Even with copy and line edits, you’ll still need to review changes and suggestions. An editor should ideally coach you through your piece, helping you identify its strengths and weaknesses. The best editors will not only give you suggestions to improve your piece, but they will also teach you how to become a better writer. For my own clients, I generally give suggestions first, then have my clients implement the changes themselves. It’s a lot of work for both parties, but by doing so, the author can practice the techniques of better writing as they learn them, making them stick longer. An editor can only be as invested in you and your work as you are in them; if you’re not willing to make sacrifices and work hard on your piece to make it perfect, you won’t get as much out of the editing process as you could.

Well, that wraps up the editing series. I hope my tips have been helpful, and if anyone has any questions, don’t hesitate to get in touch!

The Editing Agenda: Making Your Sentences Stronger

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

If there’s one thing that makes writing weaker than anything else, it’s those blasted filter words and passive sentences. They work their way into multiple paragraphs, sucking them dry, and before you know it, your manuscript has withered away into nothingness! Okay, not really. But they are a nuisance, and they do tend to sprout in unwanted places, making your writing less than awesome. So how do you identify filter words and passive lines, and how do you improve them?

Identifying Weak vs. Strong

Let’s start with filter words and phrases. Filter words are ones that put a veil between the reader and the character. Instead of the reader directly experiencing the action as the narrator or main character does, they hear it through a secondhand account. Many editors (myself included) will argue that the use of filter words—effectively summarization—separates the reader from the events of the story, making it harder for them to connect with the book and its characters. Many of you might recognize this as the old show, don’t tell technique.

The upside to identifying these filter phrases is there are some key words that can tip you off. Here are a few of the main ones:

  • to begin
  • to try
  • to seem
  • to start
  • to watch
  • to realize
  • to notice
  • to look
  • to feel
  • to decide
  • can/could/couldn’t
  • to know
  • to find
  • to remember
  • to be able to
  • to note
  • to let
  • to experience
  • to wonder
  • to touch
  • to gaze
  • to observe
  • to help
  • to become

These words won’t always indicate weak writing, but if you find one of these phrases or a variation of one, chances are pretty high that the sentence is in need of editing, even if it’s just to condense. To illustrate how filter words and phrases can distract the reader and overshadow an otherwise sound passage, here’s an example of a paragraph riddled with these creatures:

Jennifer WATCHED the school disappear and then closed her eyes, LETTING the scene slowly fill her head. She REALIZED just how slowly she was moving when she APPROACHED the finish line, and she FELT the air rush past her cheeks as she BECAME the first to finish. She heard the others behind her, but they were far enough away that she COULDN'T make out their words.

Now let’s take that same paragraph and reword, eliminating the filter words and strengthening each line:

As the school disappeared from view, Jennifer closed her eyes, the scene slowly filling her head. Her feet lunged toward the finish line in slow strides, and air rushed past her cheeks as the tape broke across her chest. She had done it. She’d won! The others straggled far behind, their words garbled in the wind.

Which paragraph would you rather read? Which one makes you feel more connected to Jennifer? Chances are, you picked the second paragraph. Not only is the veil lifted between the reader and the character using this method, the writing itself is clearer and more concise. Think of this technique as watching a movie versus a friend telling you about the same movie. While you can get a pretty good idea about what happened in a movie when your friend recounts it, the experience will likely be a more pleasant one if you see it firsthand. This technique also explains why first person and close third points of view have become popular in modern works of fiction—readers find it much easier to connect with those narrative styles.

Here are some additional articles I recommend for tackling filter words:

http://writeitsideways.com/are-these-filter-words-weakening-your-fiction/

http://www.invisibleinkediting.com/2013/12/23/how-to-find-filter-words-and-filter-them-out/

 

Taking the Active Approach

Another pest that may be inhabiting your paragraphs are passive sentences. Passive sentences are those in which the subject does not perform the action but rather the action is done unto them. While a few of these are okay, a manuscript filled with them can have the same effect as filter words and phrases: an unfortunate veil between the reader and your characters.

For example, let’s take this paragraph about a cake (because, you know, who doesn’t love a good cake?):

There WAS a three-tiered cake on the counter with chocolate icing. As I stepped closer and took a bite, I COULD TELL THERE WERE different flavors for each layer. The top layer HAD TO BE chocolate—my favorite. But the middle WAS much lighter in color, presumably a plain white cake. The bottom layer CONSISTED OF more chocolate cake, but it HAD BEEN FILLED with a gooey cherry filling. The cake TASTED absolutely delicious!

Apart from these lines being mostly passive and sprinkled with filter phrases, there’s little about the flavor and texture of the cake. After reading this passage, a reader might think, “Hey, cake sounds kind of good right about now.” But that’s not what we're after. We don’t want the reader to crave just any cake—we want them to crave that specific cake.

Here’s the same paragraph with active sentences, more descriptors, and fewer filter phrases:

A three-tiered cake sat on the counter, creamy chocolate icing covering every inch of its surface. As I stepped closer and popped a bite into my mouth, an array of flavors coated my taste buds. A powerful punch of fluffy chocolate cake—my favorite—created the first layer. A lighter-colored layer of plain white cake followed. An additional layer of chocolate cake lined the bottom, but a gooey cherry filling seeped through its pores, and a definite sweet-but-tart flavor danced on my tongue. Absolutely delicious!

To avoid passive sentences, I use a two-fold approach. The first task is to identify all the linking verbs and eliminate them wherever possible. The same is true for filter words and phrases. This may take a few attempts and sometimes even a considerable amount of wording, but that’s okay. If the changes make your sentences more powerful, the effort will be worth it. Once you’ve identified those and made necessary changes, go back through each line and apply some personification. This is an especially useful method for tackling descriptive paragraphs like the one above.

Though you may be skeptical that small changes like these make such a big difference to your manuscript, give it a try. It might take a considerable amount of time and rewording, but the process is well worth it. The result will be stronger sentences and an overall stronger manuscript.

The Editing Agenda: Capitalization

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

Capitalization is one of those pain-in-the-butt rules of punctuation that I loathe. In fact, to be perfectly honest, I hated the thought of writing a post on it, but this is one of those topics that I knew needed to be tackled. So rather than give you laundry list of a billion different types of instances that require capitalization, for the sake of your sanity and my own, I’m going to stick with the main ones that pop up in fiction (and some nonfiction). And throw in some examples of course!

General, Nobility, and Military Titles

General Titles

General titles are only capitalized if they are used before names—unless the title is followed by a comma, in which case it remains lowercase. Titles are NOT capitalized if they come after a name or if they’re used in place of a name.

Example 1a: The president* is speaking later today.

Example 1b: The inauguration of President Obama took place on January 20, 2009.

Example 1c: The president, Barack Obama, was inaugurated on January 20.

*Note: Some writers choose to capitalize titles for those people high in government ranking out of respect, but this style is going by the wayside. Most modern style guides are in favor of lowercase with the only exception being Speaker, as in Speaker of the House.

Example 2a: The treasurer of the class, Katie Smith, raised her hand.

Example 2b: Treasurer Katie Smith took her place.

However, be aware that official titles are not the same thing as occupations. Occupations should not be capitalized before a full name.

  • teacher John Smith
  • author Edgar Allan Poe
  • actress Sandra Bullock

Note: Sometimes style guides express different opinions. The occupations of professor and manager, for example, are sometimes accepted as titles rather than occupations. However, as a whole, most style guides are in favor of keeping things lowercase, including The Chicago Manual of Style.

Nobility Titles

When it comes to medieval terms, a lot of people mistakenly believe that words such as sir, my lady (alternative milady), my lord (alternative milord), and several other similar titles are always capitalized. However, as is the case with the other titles listed, they are generally only capitalized when used with a name.

Example 1a: King George depended on his loyal subjects.

Example 1b: The king’s favorite food was chocolate-covered strawberries.

Example 2a: Have you seen Sir Lancelot?

Example 2b: Have you seen him, my good sir?

One exception to this is when the generic elements (king, queen, prince, duke, duchess, etc.) are used with a specific location, thereby making the generic element a permanent extension of the person’s name.

Example: He received a letter from the Prince of Wales.

Military Titles

As with general titles, when used in formal or academic prose, military titles are only capitalized when they precede a person’s name.

Example 1a: General Michael Smith was recently promoted.

Example 1b: Michael Smith, the general of the unit, was recently promoted.

Degrees, Departments, and Courses

Academic degrees, as well as departments and courses, should be lowercased when they are used in general terms.

Example 1a: He received bachelor’s degree in liberal arts.

Example 1b: Mary studied mechanical engineering.

Example 1c: I took calculus and statistics my first semester in college.

Example 1d: Is Mike’s major psychology or philosophy?

The name of a specific degree can be capitalized, however, when it is used as part of a title, such as on a résumé or business card.

Example 2a (résumé format):

B.A. in Professional Writing
Minors in German, Psychology

Example 2b: I obtained my B.A. in professional writing and have minors in German and psychology.

As far as courses go, they should only be capitalized when the specific course title is being named.

Example 3a: I took Physics: Electricity and Magnetism during my sophomore year.

Example 3b: I took physics during my sophomore year.

Unnecessary capitalization of these items is definitely one of the most common mistakes I see, especially in bios, so this is a big one to watch out for.

Books and Other Works

As a general rule, for titles of books, magazines, journals, websites, short stories, and many other types of publications, the standard method is to capitalize the first and last words and all other major words. This includes nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjective, adverbs, and some conjunctions (except and, but, for, or, and nor).

The articles a, an, and the are always lowercased. Prepositions are also lowercased, regardless of length, except when they are used adverbially or adjectivally (Fess Up, Step Down, Off Switch, Come To). However, the word to is lowercased not only as a preposition in most cases but also as part of an infinitive (to Watch, to Surrender).

A couple of additional notes:

  • Part of proper names that are lowercased in text, such as de or von, should be kept as lowercase in a title.
  • The second part of a species name is always lowercased, even if it’s the last word in a title.

Seasons and Time of Day

The four seasons should be lowercased unless they are used as part of the issue title of a journal or magazine.

Example 1a: December marks the start of winter.

Example 1b: The Winter 2015 issue has been published.

Abbreviations for time of day are capitalized depending on whether or not periods are used to punctuation them:

Example 2a: He left at 6:41 p.m.

Example 2b: He left at 6:41 PM.

Deities and Concepts

Names of any deity, whether part of monotheistic or polytheistic religions, are capitalized. Religious events also follow suit (the Creation, the Exodus, the Second Coming).

Terms for divine dwelling places, divine places of punishment, and other such concepts (heaven, hell, limbo, nirvana) are usually lowercased. However, they are often capitalized when used in solely religious context.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, these are the main problematic areas of capitalization that I’ve come across. But if you’re looking for an extensive resource on this topic, The Chicago Manual of Style has a hefty section dedicated to it. You can also find most of the answers to the common questions they receive in the forums on their website, part of which you can view for free if you Google “CMOS” plus the topic at hand.

The Editing Agenda: Tackling Tags

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

While I’ve made several posts in the past about dialogue, today it’s time to tackle tags. During my experience as an editor, I’ve corrected a ridiculous number of tags. In fact, they’re probably the biggest issue I run into—apart from maybe commas. What makes them such a struggle for writers? Honestly, I think the methodology has a lot to do with it. When many of us write, my included, we tend to get the story down on paper as quickly as possible and worry about the structure later. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. However, eventually we have to the editing stage. So what better time to hunt down the little boogers and spruce them up? This article will focus on the ins and outs of tags: what works as a tag, what doesn’t, and why diversity in tags can sometimes be a downfall.

Tag, You’re It!

The general purpose of a tag is to describe who is speaking and to indict tone of the dialogue.

Some tags may be very simple: “Put the water on to boil,” said Tommy.

Others may be more elaborate: “Why would you do this?” she asked in a strangled voice.

They can even be coupled with an action: “Of course,” he said, waving goodbye.

But all tags are used to further clarify the dialogue within the given context. Oftentimes, they are a way of depicting emotions as well as what is being said. But BE CAREFUL about using tags to convey emotion, especially if you’re relying on adverbs to do so. Usually, a much better way of illustrating these emotions is to use characters’ body language, facial expressions, and even the words themselves. While including some emotion in a tag’s description is okay, too much falls dangerously into the telling category. The best way to avoid this is to ask yourself, “Can this be shown better through the character’s actions or by others’ responses?” If the answer is yes, your tag probably could use some tweaking.

Example A (adverbial tag): “Are you going anywhere with this?” Jane asked impatiently.

Example B (alternative): “Are you going anywhere with this?” Jane asked, crossing her arms and pursing her lips.

While Example A definitely conveys Jane’s emotions and signifies that she is the one asking a question, it definitely lies more in the realm of telling. There’s no clear image of what the character is doing to show that she’s impatient, and it doesn’t engage the reader. Example B fulfills the function of a tag, and it does a much better job of showing how Jane feels without stating anything directly.

Not It!

A tag isn’t a linked reaction the dialogue. This concept can be tricky, because a lot of actions sound like they could be tags—but they aren’t. For instance:

“Well, of course I didn’t!” Joanie giggled.

Giggling, while an action often associated with what someone has said, is a reaction to the dialogue being spoken, not a description of the tone used or a simple signpost for who said the line; therefore, it’s NOT a tag. Here are a few other actions often mistakenly used as tags:

  • Coughed
  • Laughed
  • Hissed
  • Nodded
  • Smiled
  • Sighed

The best way to catch these pesky creatures is to make use of the search and find feature on your word processor. It can home in on all those non-tags (sometimes referred to as bookisms) for you in a matter of seconds. Once you’ve found all the subpar tags, get to work revising and tweaking them until you have a solid base sprinkled with appropriate actions to convey emotions. Your readers will thank you for it.

Keep It Simple

There’s still some debate over this technique, but I think editors and publishers as a whole have come to the consensus that when it comes to dialogue tags, keeping it simple is best. That doesn’t mean you can’t have some diversity in your tags or pepper them with action where necessary—in fact, using action with tags is a necessity to avoiding a phenomenon called talking heads—but tags are one place where variation isn’t necessarily a good thing.

The word said is one of the best markers you can use in dialogue. It serves the primary function of dialogue, to depict who is speaking, and accompanying actions can be used to further enhance the scene by conveying emotion and even tone of the dialogue. While it may feel like using “said” multiple times in a scene would be tiresome to the reader, quite the opposite is true. Readers treat the word like a signpost: it directs them without interrupting the flow of the narration, and that makes for a smoother reading.

If you want some extra tips on using tags, I highly recommend checking out this article by Writer’s Digest. They give excellent examples and go even more in-depth about showing vs. telling when it comes to dialogue and tags.