Sunday, January 30, 2011

Knowing the Rules

Apologies for the late post. This past week has been an adventure -- not -- in trying to get online. I'm about to make another call to tech support once I manage to publish this post.

Today's post is going to be a bit different from what I usually post on Sundays. It stems from something I've noticed with a few of the submissions we've received during this submission period at the last at NRP. So, with my editor's hat on, here goes. . . .

Many years ago, back when we wrote with arcane machines called IBM Selectric typewriters -- no, I don't remember stone tablets. I'm not THAT old, although I swear we used ink and quills in grade school ;-p -- and long before computers were something every family had multiples of, I took freshmen English at Baylor University in Waco, TX. Like many freshmen, I hadn't realized how different college was going to be when I walked into that first English class. After all, it looked pretty much like my honors high school English classes. There were about 30 of us, all sitting at our desks, waiting for the professor.

So we sat there and waited, looking around, taking stock of those in class with us. Then, as the bell rang, a woman we'd assumed was simply another student stood and walked to the front of the class. The moment she opened her mouth, we realized things were about to be very different from high school. Long story short, after introducing herself and finding out who had come to class without the assigned textbook, she passed out a single sheet of paper listing what to do to flunk a paper and, therefore, the class.

Two comma faults, you flunk the paper. Two split infinitives, you flunk. Two dangling modifiers, you flunk. Three misspelled words, you flunk. There were more. Remember, it was a page of this, all single spaced. To add insult to injury, any combination of the list meant you flunked the paper. Then, just to make sure we were a bundle of nerves for the rest of the term, if you didn't have a "C" average on the last three papers of the term, you flunked the class.

Remember, this was back before the days of being able to "save" a document and go back in and make simple corrections. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention she didn't want to see white-out or erasures either.

What does that have to do with publishing today? A couple of things -- and yes, that violated another of her rules. I just committed one of her biggest "no-nos". I wrote a sentence fragment. -- The first is that, as writers, we need a working knowledge of the rules of writing. It doesn't matter how good your story is if you turn off an agent or editor because your grammar and punctuation becomes a distraction because it is so bad.

The problem is that our schools, on the whole, aren't teaching grammar any more. Then there's the reality that the rules have changed. Do you put a comma before the "and" in a list of three of more objects (Mary, Fred and Tom went to school.). Do you set off "too" with commas when using it as you would "also"? (That, too, is a good question. I want to go too.)

But it goes beyond the simple rules of grammar. Back in the days before personal computers of every size, shape and flavor, we were told to do a single underline of words we wanted to be italicized and to double underline words that were to be put in bold. Internal dialogue was underlined. Telepathic conversations were set off by either single quotes (or apostrophes) or by colons. It worked because that's what the typesetters were used to.

Today, if you use those methods, you date yourself. The problem comes in that very few style guides put out by agents or publishers tell you not to underline. It's just something you're supposed to know. Making matters worse, not all agents and publishers have made the move from old-style to new.

Then there's the latest debate. Do you put one or two spaces after a period. Based on some of the posts I've seen about this, you'd think it was an earth-shattering issue. It's not. In fact, as far as I'm concerned, it's a non-issue. Why? Because in this day and age of e-books and some authors or publishers using non-standard fonts, sometimes you need the extra spacing. As an author just submitting a manuscript for consideration, the number of spaces you put at the end of the sentence is the one thing most editors could care less about -- as long as you aren't putting in more than a couple.

So, where is all this going? Simply put, know the rules. Know that plural nouns need plural verbs. Know the tenses. Know how to decline verbs. Know basic sentence structure. It also means you need to know the rules of each individual agent or publisher you are submitting to. Check to see if they have a style guide posted somewhere. If not, check their blogs to see what books they refer to most often. Do they like Strunk & White? The Chicago Manual of Style? Or is there something else they keep on their desk for reference? If there is, get a copy and keep it right there with your dictionary and thesaurus. It will come in handy. Trust me on this.

Most of all, you need to know when it's okay to break the rules.

Just as it's okay to use accents and local vernacular to give your reader insights into your characters -- as long as they don't become a distraction -- it's okay to break the rules. Again, as long as it doesn't become a distraction. When the mechanics of the writing detract from the story, there's a problem. Like it or not, fair or not, when that happens, most editors and agents will pass on the manuscript.


Stephen Simmons said...

And when all else fails, ASK the submissions-editor or agent. A quick, to-the-point question concerning whatever specific aspect of formatting isn't clear in their submission guidelines won't hurt. (So long as it really isn't clear -- otherwise you're advertising either intellectual slovenliness or laziness.) Cliff Laurel, the NRP submissions editor, replied to my question concerning what annotations NRP preferred to see for italics and boldface within just a few hours ...

I typically turn off the "grammar-check" feature in MS Word, or at least train myself to ignore it. When I *am* writing in complete sentences, my phrasing frequently ends up being complex enough to confuse it. And when I'm breaking the rules I'm generally doing so with malice and forethought, and I don't need an electronic Jiminy Cricket trying to convince me the fairy wouldn't approve.

[Amanda -- A note from the pesky little copy-editor-gnome who lives in my head, the byproduct of being raised by a tribe of rabid grade-school English teachers: In the second sentence of the paragraph about spaces at the ends of sentences, you put "comma" where you meant to say "period", I think.]

Amanda Green said...

Stephen, fixed. Thanks. That's what happens when I'm trying to recreate posts that should have posted but didn't because my internet dropped in the middle of the process and I hadn't saved.

BBL to respond to the rest of your comment.

MataPam said...

I sent a manuscript out to a professional, and, well, if it hadn't been electronic, it would have been dripping red ink. Apparently I have a poor grasp of capitalization and hyphenation. I already knew I had a tendedcy to leave off suffixes, and often leave out entire words. Along with a few words I consistently misspell and the usual typos.

Ah, pity the poor NR readers!

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


You lost the post while you were uploading. Gaaah. I've had that happen.

I saw an editor at a world con and they said story is king. Give me a good story and I can fix anything else.

OK. But if you give them a good story and everything else is right, they are more likely to choose your story over the one that needs all the fixing!

Stephen Simmons said...

Pam - maybe you absorbed a few Bad Things through the skin, in all that time you spent exposing yourself to raw slush? As I mentioned above,grew up having certified-and-licensed elementary school teachers as my mother, my aunt (my very own 3rd-grade teacher), my grandmother, and now a goodly half-dozen cousins (plus a sister-in-law) have followed in the "family business" ... anyway, I pretty much absorbed the rudiments of grammar and style right out of the armosphere around me, growing up. That, and I tended (and still tend) to read things that are well-written, given any choice at all, so that baseline is continually being reinforced.

I can't vouch for the *quality* of what I write, without independent outside opinions. But I'm generally confident about the mechanics of the writing *itself*, all in all.

Chris L said...

Hi Ammanda,

Coming from a scientific writing background, I found fiction difficult for a long time. In science you have to follow the rules -- period.

No exceptions!

Even if you're writing a paper on the CURE FOR DEATH, you must state every finding and every conclusion in boring sci-speak.

Of course, when I began writing fiction I was accused of everything from passive voice, to lame endings.

I was never taught grammar, but learned through the school of red ink and re-writes. I remember one supervisor on my final thesis totally blitzing one page, to the point where an "and" was the only surviving word.

Ah, those were the days: critical advice on every word...guarantee of publication...ignorance...bliss...

Stephen Simmons said...

Amanda - I know it's black humor, and for that reason I resisted the urge to say this earlier ... but I just can't help being struck by the irony. A post about the damage done to the mechanics of writing and publishing by the advent of personal computers and the ability to save at will, and you hadn't saved ...

Amanda Green said...

Stephen, again, thanks for pointing out what my coffee deprived brain missed this morning.

And you're right, a quick question to the submissions editor or agent is usually the best bet. Unfortunately, there are some out there who won't answer those questions and who have given everyone the reputation of not wanting to talk to authors who are in the process of submitting. Which is, in my opinion, foolish. I know our submissions editor and assistants would much rather have a politely phrased "Help!" than to get something that is so poorly formatted, etc.

I, too, turn off the grammar-check feature. I also ignore spell-check and turn off the auto-correct feature. The only time I run spell-check as an author is after I've finished the piece and even then I don't always do what it says. In fact, I find I ignore it more often than not.

Besides, I like breaking the rules, especially with malice and forethought ;-p

Amanda Green said...

Pam, never fear. Even digital manuscripts can drip red and blue and green and any other color the editor wants to use. Oh, and don't forget those pretty yellow highlights that can be added ;-)

Seriously, if you know you have these issues, you need to make sure you have a good proofreader looking at your stuff before you send it out. If you don't have one, then try reading your work aloud. It's amazing how much you can catch doing that.

Amanda Green said...

Rowena, I hate when it happens and usually I have it backed up. But because of the fun I've been having with intermittent internet access this past week, I just didn't think about it. At least Blogger's autosave kept some of it, but not much.

As for the editor saying the story's the thing, I agree -- to a point. A good story will overcome a number of issues. But, if those issues are so bad, or so many, that they distract you away from the story and have you wanting to throw the computer against the wall, then the editor isn't going to read long enough to find out if the story is any good or not.

Kate Paulk said...

Grammar is not an evil conspiracy.

It's a tool used to make sure that written English is capable of conveying meaning. When people are talking, there's a lot of meaning that gets conveyed by the non-verbal cues - facial expressions, gestures, body positioning and the like. Written English totally lacks those cues so something that makes sense when someone SAYS it is totally "WTF?" when it's written down word for word.

Ditto spelling. Standard spelling means it's a heck of a lot easier to figure out what writer means.

I got "lucky". I absorbed spelling and grammar by osmosis from reading huge amounts. That also means if I get it wrong I don't have a clue what it is. And there are words that I can't spell unless I see them written down.

If you're fuzzy about grammar or spelling, get a patient and GOOD proof-reader, or learn. Your call which path you take, but take one of them.

Amanda Green said...

Chris L, you are most definitely right about the differences between writing fiction and writing scientific -- or non-fiction in general. It is certainly an exercise in mental gymnastics, at least for me, to go from one type to the next.

Still, there are some basics of non-fic I wish a lot of fiction writers would follow. Things like making sure your world has rules -- especially important in fantasy -- and your characters follow them.

But the important thing is you learned the rules, at least in a general sense, writing those scientific papers. Now it's up to you to decide when you can, and should, break them in your fiction.

Amanda Green said...

Stephen, black was the color of the air around me this morning when it happened. At least Blogger had autosaved some of the post. But, frustrated as I've been with my internet provider combined with the definite lack of enough coffee this morning meant I had to reconstruct some of it. Never fun.

The real problem was that I had constructed this post in blogger instead of in a text editor like I usually do. I'd hit upload and walked away, assuming blogger would do its thing and all would be well. Imagine my surprise when I came back a few minutes later to no internet signal and, when I could get online again, no post uploaded. All I had was an earlier partial save.

So, no more composing in blogger. This is what I get for breaking habit.

T.M. Lunsford said...

Not gonna lie, even as a college senior, as an English major, I know my grammar is substandard. I vaguely remember teachers making weak attempts to teach us grammar in elementary school. They assigned little worksheets that we went through the motions of finishing, but we never applied it to real writing.
But as bad as my grammar is, I've unfortunately seen worse, especially in formal papers. Like Amanda said, a certain amount of lee-way can be given for the sake of voice in novels. However there are some mistakes that are just plain stupid (i.e. defiantly in place of definitely).

Stephen Simmons said...

Oh, no, Amanda, I keep the spill-chucker on. I don't rely on it to tell me that I've actually got all the right letters in all the right places for regular English words though, because I know full well that over-reliance on a spill-chucker can lead a speller to Sioux-eye-sighed, as the old poem goes ... no, I rely on it to catch me mis-typing my character-names and made-up words, like the names of fantasy critters or places.

Chris McMahon said...

Hey, Amanda. I've learnt the hard way how spelling and grammar mistakes can can a story. Necessary evils.

Hey - I loved your novel snippet - can't wait to read the rest:)

Stephen Simmons said...

By the way, your timing is excellent. I spent today polishing my NRP submission for this reading period, and the reminder about style and guidelines fit the theme perfectly. :-)

[Another gnote from the gnome, though: In the "What We Don't Want" paragraph of the NRP submission guidelines, there's something amiss in the first sentence. Either there's a word missing, or the intent to carry through from the heading is interrupted by an extra word.]

Amanda Green said...

Kate, you crush me. What do you mean it's not an evil conspiracy? I always thought it was something thought up by evil teachers just to drive me insane while I was still in school. ;-p

I do agree with you about standard spelling. While a word or sentence here and there in a local dialect or accent will give the reader a feel for a character, there is such a thing as too much. If the reader is having to study the page to figure out what is being said, they are likely to walk away from the book, especially if it happens time and again.

Your advice to either get a patient and knowledgeable proofreader or to learn the rules is great. I'd add one thing to it -- a writer should do both.

Amanda Green said...

Taylor, don't feel bad. We've raised a generation without a working knowledge of the rules of grammar and are well on the way to doing so with a second generation. I won't get into the nuts and bolts of it because, well, it will get me talking politics and I try not to do that here. Still, this is a trend we need to stop.

Amanda Green said...

Stephen, I keep spell-check on but, like you, ignore it. It's grammar-check I turn off. Sorry if I didn't make that clear.

I do like how you use spell-check.

Amanda Green said...

Chris M, yes, they are necessary evils. I wish more writers understood that.

Thanks for comment re: my snippet. Needless to say, I'm more than a little terrified now that I know it's actually being published.

Amanda Green said...

Stephen, tell the gnome thanks. We've fixed that paragraph twice now that I know of and the fix hasn't gone through. I'll put the hamsters back on it this morning.

MataPam said...

I learned grammar simply by reading obsesively. And yes, I think a lot of Bad Things crept into my writing from all the slush reading. But all those capital letters . . . too many flame wars online, perhaps?

I think we're raiseing a new generation of readers, because of txting. Spelling and grammar wizzes they will not be, but they will train themselves to drink in information in the form of the written word, and I think they will be voracious readers.