Category Archives: writing

1

When it’s okay to use bad grammar

When shuffling through query letters, bad grammar is often a loud warning bell. Literary agents tend to be wary when reading material from the prospective, unpublished author. Nothing will make an agent drop a query into the reject pile faster than poor grammar.

However, incorrect grammar can often be utilized as a literary style. Nearly every accomplished author does so—to one degree or another. Sentence fragments. Abbreviated words. Missing punctuation. Misspelled words and incomplete sentences. Literature is abundant with poor grammar.

So, how then can you determine when to ignore all those rules drilled into you by your elementary school teachers?

What is your writing for? Writing is purposeful. You don’t pick up a pen and commit words to paper accidentally. Is this a blog? An academic piece? A query letter? A creative piece? Resume? Knowing your audience is a time-tested lesson in writing, so for formal prose, always go the safe route and edit your piece to perfection to ensure perfect, “proper” grammar.

On the other hand, for creative pieces, bad grammar can help the author illustrate his or her point. The form your writing takes should match its tone.

Cormac McCarthy is known for his stark, bare prose and his distaste for commas and other forms of punctuation, such as the quotation mark. His writing not only complements the often-bleak tone of his work, but also adheres to a simplistic style for the sake of clarity and rhythm. He believes that punctuation can often disrupt the flow of a sentence and is usually superfluous.

Hope this was enlightening. I encourage those interested to read more on the topic. Here are some semi-related links to check out on the topic of grammar:

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/09/a-matter-of-fashion/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

http://grammar.about.com/od/rhetoricstyle/a/effectivefrag.htm

http://andthatswhyyouresingle.com/2013/03/12/does-bad-grammar-punctuation-turn-you-off/

7

The power of the period. Or comma. Or colon. Or …

One of the things I stress most over, when writing, is punctuation. (WAIT, WERE THOSE COMMAS RIGHT, JUST NOW? IS THIS PARENTHETICAL OKAY IF IT’S  ITS OWN SENTENCE? OH GOD, AM I SUPPOSED TO PUT THE PERIOD INSIDE OR OUTSIDE THE PARENTHESES IN THIS SITUATION? I’LL JUST WING IT.)

It’s funny, because most of the time I just view punctuation as a banal necessity to make sure your words aren’t misinterpreted (See: either any and all arguments for the serial comma or this amusing article on Buzzfeed). It’s stressful because there is a generally agreed upon right way to do things and if you don’t know the right way to use a particular punctuation mark there’s the absolute horror of being called out on it at some point and coming up blank. I’m mostly sure I know when and why to use a semi-colon, but please, don’t ask me to explain in front of anyone.

I still remember the day I learned the difference between and em-dash and an en-dash (and to a lesser extent, the hyphen, only included because it’s visually similar) and it changed my world. The em-dash is now, I think, my absolute favorite punctuation, to the point where I actually have to go back and edit some of them out of things I’ve written so as not to overwhelm.

Vulture posted an article by Kathryn Schulz yesterday, “The 5 Best Punctuation Marks in Literature” that I just loved and that really got the wheels turning in my head. Of course, I suppose I’d always been aware of punctuation as a literary device, just as much as anything else, but because it’s something used in even the most ordinary of sentences, it’s never stuck out as particularly powerful to me before. After reading this, however, not only am I convinced, but I’ve started noticing the punctuation in everything I read—and write, which is bound to get distracting eventually, but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

I think my favorite of the examples that Schulz presents are Nabokov’s parenthetical and Dickens’ colon—both are masterful and truly do change the sentiment and takeaway from each passage in which they appear. Reading through the comments, I notice someone lit upon just what I myself had been thinking of as I read—what about the lack of proper punctuation, or heck, punctuation at all to bring home a point or strengthen an emotion? One commenter referenced Molly Bloom’s monologue at the very end of Joyce’s Ulysses and her rushed, hurried, full of sensation, devoid of thought “and yes I said yes I will Yes” has always been one of my favorite closing lines in literature and it couldn’t have been as perfect as it was if there had been even a single comma betwixt the words—I’ll go on record saying that.

What about you? Any particular mark of punctuation just really not do it for you? Elude you in the proper way it’s meant to be used? Do you have any more literary references for its excellent use? I’d love to hear them.

1

Writing tips from 2013 to help you in 2014

I hope you all had good holidays. I personally did a lot of celebrating since my birthday falls right between Christmas and New Year’s. One highlight was seeing Kinky Boots on Broadway. I loved it! After so much fun, I feel ready (even if my piles don’t) to be back at work and motivated to work with my authors to sell lots of great books.

I like at this time of year to regroup, look at the big picture, and try to come up with a strategy for a successful year ahead. I find this approach to be effective, even if I can’t always keep all of my annual goals.

I love this list of best-of writing articles from 2013 compiled by Writer’s Digest because it covers so many bases in the writing process. And it’s especially useful since it’s broken down by categories like Writing Better Characters, How to Get Published, and Inspiration for Writers. One of my favorites is the 2001 interview with Tom Clancy and his quote: “I do not over-intellectualize the production process. I just keep it simple: Tell the damn story”. That’s definitely keeping it simple, and direct!

I wanted to share it with our blog readers who are hopefully feeling like I am – motivated, energized, and ready to work hard to be as successful as we can be. Starting out by reading these articles just might help get you on the right track for the year ahead.

Enjoy and please let us know which articles from their list you find to be the most helpful. Now, let’s all get to work!

13

The psychology of writing

I have a very strong interest in psychology that goes back to when I minored in it in college. My list has been peppered with titles over the years that explore various issues in this area and I am always interested in seeing new ideas with a psychological bend.

I enjoyed this article in authormagazine.org by published author Jennifer Paros about the psychology of writing. She used her son as a jumping off point, describing how as a young teenager he decided he had an interest in writing. He was then hampered by a fear of failure, essentially. My 8 year-old has recently expressed a similar interest, so I told her the only way to become a writer is to actually write but when I ask her if she wants to, the answer is usually no. I’m  not yet sure where her reluctance is coming from, but I’m going to keep an eye on it and try to encourage her to keep working on it.

Ms. Paros talked with her son about what was holding him back to get him past his stumbling blocks and the writing became easier and more natural. Eventually the process of writing outweighed the insecurity of worrying about a possible negative reaction in sharing his work.

This is likely a common stressor for writers and everyone else. We all worry, some more than others, about what people think of us or if they will react negatively to something we’ve said or done. It’s the people who use their mental strength to overcome these fears that will likely have the most success in writing or anything else they choose to do, a topic generating a great deal of interest following my client Amy Morin’s recent piece about mentally strong people and things they avoid.

What’s your biggest fear as a writer? Have you been able to overcome your insecurities to find a successful path? Share your stories. There are lessons to be learned for all of us.

3

A book can change your life

The title of this post might be overly dramatic, but if you look hard enough you will find some pretty incredible stories about people whose lives were changed by books and reading.

One of those amazing stories comes from YA author Matt de la Peña, whose piece this week in NPR is well worth your time. He touches on so many moments in his own life that were altered by books, and then when he goes into talking about his dad and how his life was changed by reading, well, I was in tears by that point so that tells you what kind of piece this is. In simple prose, he taps into why words and books and reading matter, and how the power of the written word can literally change your life. And I believe almost always for the better.

A love of reading doesn’t have to start early, either. Matt’s life-changing moment came in his second year of college. And you know what else I love about this article? That teacher. That amazing teacher who saw something in this young man and knew he had potential and needed a nudge so she gave him a copy of The Color Purple and asked him to read it before he graduated and then come talk with her about it.

I’m sorry for the way things go for Joshua, a tough young kid profiled here with a secret writing habit, and I hope that de la Peña or someone else can help him find his way through his writing, and through books. When I read pieces like this, it’s so validating to think that the work that we are all doing can make a difference, and in some cases, all the difference.

Do you have any stories to share about how a book changed your life, or the life of someone you know? Please share. And pass this article on too. It’s a great read, and an inspiring one.

1

What you need to know about querying agents

I came across this piece from thewritelife.com by the always interesting and entertaining Chuck Sambuchino from Writer’s Digest.

I think all of the advice is meaningful and generally right on, but I must say my favorite is number 1. Can you query multiple agents at the same agency? As he suggests, and speaking at least for our agency, the answer is no. Just today I got a query referred by a colleague that was submitted to me as well. This is something that can be extremely frustrating for us when we request something that another agent in-house has requested as well. He’s absolutely right that within our agency we have a great sense of each other’s interests, and if there is something that we feel isn’t right for our list, but might be a better fit for someone else, we will share it.

The other point that jumps out at me is number 6. When should you query? When is your project ready? He goes on to talk about beta-readers and making sure you have your work read and re-read before you start the submission process. It should be clean and edited and ready to go.

Number 9 about simultaneous submissions is also helpful. We always assume it’s simultaneous unless you tell us otherwise. And that’s ok, just as long as it’s not simultaneous within our own agency J.

I have a question I’d add to this list. Should you personalize your query? The answer to this is yes. The more research you do on agents and their lists, the more likely you are to get the response you are looking for. If you can cite a book that is similar to yours that the agent you’re querying represented, that’s a small personal touch that can really make a difference.

Let us know if you have any other pieces of advice not covered in this list. There is no right or wrong answer, but there are many things you can do to make your query stand out from the others.

5

An author and editor chat

Like any relationship, the one between an author and his or her editor is nuanced and complex. We work in an industry that has a great deal of turnover on the editorial side and there are times when a multi-published author might have several editors within a house during their tenure. I actually have a client on my list that has done three books, and has had five editors!

So when I saw this interview on Slate with author Sarah Dessen and her longtime editor Regina Hayes (eleven books and counting), I thought it was pretty cool and worth sharing. I like Hayes’s thought on her role in the editing process: “To provide a fresh eye on the overarching story and to ask a lot of questions.” Since writing is a solo sport, it can become challenging to keep perspective on your work, and having another reader can be a really important part of the process. It doesn’t have to be a professional editor, although certainly if there is that opportunity it can be advantageous, but any number of beta readers who are good at reading and responding with constructive criticism can be helpful.

I also appreciated Dessen’s simple but important advice about writing: “Cutting is easy. Stretching is really hard. And just a bit of backstory can change everything.” In particular I’m in agreement on the part about backstory. You never want to be stuck asking why a character is motivated to act a certain way because something from their past has been left out of the story.

I’ve had the same intern the last few summers, and learned early  on in our working together that although she’s young, she has a good critical eye for material. Finding someone whose taste you can trust is a priceless commodity, and a good productive author/editor relationship is one to cherish. We’d like to hear your own stories of working with an editor and what that experience was like for you. Please share!

4

Writing and Exercise

A few days ago, I caught Terry Gross interviewing evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman on his new book, the Story of the Human Body.  It was absolutely fascinating, one of the best interviews I’ve listened to, and I listen to a lot of interviews. Among the many points he raised is that humans are not made for sitting.  Sitting is bad for us; it weakens our back muscles, raises our blood pressure, our risk of diabetes and propels us to an early grave (albeit in a comfortable, seated position).  This is, of course, bad news for most of us, but for writers in particular. So I was glad when my client Beth Hahn sent along this article from Ploughshares, “Exercising Your Craft: 3 Writers Who Get Physical.” Beth is a novelist and a yoga instructor, and she speaks quite convincingly about the relationship between yoga and writing.

What do you do when your “position” is not “hunched over your desk”?

Do you find any particular form of exercise useful to your writing process?

I’m not a writer per se, but I do find physical activity helpful in my own work. I also practice yoga, chase my kids, bike, and vacuum*,  but my favorite form of exercise is probably kickboxing (not be confused with any legitimate martial art) but rather an activity in which participants throw punches and kicks at our own red-faced reflections, and pose little threat to anyone but ourselves.

 It is not all meditative, but instead cathartic.

*with vigor

9

Virtual assistant to the rescue!

I was reading PW online and came across this piece about writers hiring virtual assistants to help them with various admin tasks related to their writing. I was intrigued, and it seems there’s a crop of these online helpers out there in business to lighten the load on writers so that they can spend more time on what they do best – writing!

It’s a simple concept, and yet novel and very 21st Century. I’m sure there are a variety of ways in which these relationships can be developed and managed in terms of pay, hours, and the “virtual” piece suggests the person works remotely. It’s key to find someone who knows the skills required (or can learn them), can do the job from wherever they are, and can be flexible to meet your needs as a writer which can change depending on where you are in your career.

This might not be the right solution for everyone, but I do think there are some ideas in here worth exploring. For example, the list that Kati comes up with describes various activities that a virtual assistant can help with. It includes everything from answering e-mails, updating your website, handling mailings for promotions, and exploring/managing all forms of social media.

In this market, writing is only one part (thankfully it still is the most important part) of the job. Marketing and promoting yourself and your work is critical to an author’s long-term success and that’s why a virtual assistant (or any other kind of assistant for that matter) is an interesting concept to contemplate.

If you were fortunate enough to be able to hire a virtual assistant, what would you have him or her do for you?

4

Successful queries to learn from, and a prize!

As you all know by now, I’m a huge fan of writersdigest.com. I think they offer such great resources to writers. And now I think I’ve found the most useful series yet, and not just because it’s edited by the very entertaining Chuck Sambuchino, with whom I broke bread at the recent Writers’ League of Texas conference.

Successful Queries, of which there are already 63 installments, offers readers an actual query letter followed by a critique from the agent who agreed to represent it. These are all books that have gone on to be published by major publishers so there is a ton of great information here to take away.  The letters themselves would be reason enough to spend some time checking it out, but the agent critiques are also extremely valuable to learn what agents are looking for and what stood out in a particular query.

What I’ve noted as a general rule is that the queries that work best are sometimes the simplest and most concise. Good writers with strong stories can pitch their books in just a few sentences, as flap copy does for published books. It doesn’t have to be long to be good.

Take a look and see if you agree with my assessment that this is a useful exercise, not to mention it’s free and you can do it from the comfort of your own home. And if you’re so inclined, tell us which query is your favorite and why, and I will pick at random a winner to receive a DGLM umbrella!