Friday, December 19, 2014

Grammatical Pet Peeves

In the last couple of weeks, I have read query letters that clearly have demonstrated a lack of understanding, or maybe blatant abuse of basic elements of grammar. I have to say, this just frustrates me to no end. When editors and agents see grammar errors in things such as a query letter, this makes us question what the entire manuscript is going to look like.

Now, I do understand, there are many times in writing when we can successfully use grammar incorrectly. Hemingway did it all of the time. Joyce did it in Finnegan's Wake.  In poetry, we had ee cummings. The point though, is these authors knew what they were doing and why they were doing it.

For me, I really struggle with 4 mistakes that feel like fingernails down the chalkboard: Long, rambling 1 sentence paragraphs; fragments; run-on's and comma splices; and finally, the infamous semi-colon. I'm going to take some time today to talk about the issue and what you can do to fix the problems. Consider this Grammar 101 for the Holidays!

I get it. You have a lot you want to say and you are trying your best to pack all of that information into that query letter. But we have to remember the basic definition of a paragraph and why we use it, It is a block of information around one main idea (note I did not use the word topic). We also have to understand that we use it to make things easier for the readers so they can understand what you are talking about.

When we read something that goes on and on in a single paragraph, it makes us have to stop and probably re-read things. You have simply given the reader so much information, we can't hold on to it and remember it. It also creates a situation where the writing lacks fluency.

The solution for this is pretty simple. Return, at some level, to that formulaic writing of elementary school. This is when you had a paragraph that contained: a topic sentence, concrete details, commentary and a conclusion. Yes, this is pretty basic, but if you think of every paragraph in this fashion, you might find yourself with paragraphs that are easier to understand.

The second solution is to use that grammar checker on your computer. There is a setting on there to look for excessively long and wordy sentences. USE IT!

Fragments are some of the most common mistakes we see in writing. The difficulty in fiction writing is that we do speak in fragments in real life. That part is fine so I don't have a complaint about that one when the characters are speaking this way. The concern comes when the author is doing it in the 3rd person narratives and certainly in the query letters and synopses.

The definition of a fragment is simply a group of words pretending to be a sentence. To be more specific, a fragment is a "sentence" that lacks any of the following:

  1. A subject - what the sentence is about
  2. A predicate - what the subject is doing
  3. A subject AND a predicate
  4. Incomplete subject and/or predicate - missing things such as a helping verb
You have three solutions for this one.
After you have found the fragments, because you are using your grammar checker or having someone else edit it for you, or you read it out loud and it sounded terrible:

  1. Add the missing subject, predicate or helping verb.
  2. Combine it with another sentence. 
  3. Completely re-write it using new words.

Run-on's and comma splices are often associated with our people in my first pet peeve. These are also people who just let the grammar checker fix the problems for them without knowing what it is doing.

These two mistakes can be grouped together into a common category of fused sentences. These are simply situations where the author has combined two or more sentences together into one sentence. The difference between the two is how the writer has done it. For example:

RUN ON: Air pollution poses risks to all humans it can be deadly for asthma sufferers.
COMMA SPLICE: Air pollution poses risks to all humans, it can be deadly for asthma sufferers.

In other words, the only thing the person did on the second one is to combine the two sentences by using a comma.

We have four solutions for this one:

  • Make the two sentences into individual sentences.
Air pollution poses risks to all humans.  It can be deadly for asthma sufferers.
  • Use a comma and a coordinating conjunction. You have seven coordinating conjunctions to pick from (FOR, AND, NOR, BUT, OR, YET, SO)
Air pollution poses risks to all humans, and it can be deadly for asthma sufferers.
  • Use a semi-colon, colon or hyphen - I will talk about the semi-colon below.
Air pollution poses risks to all humans it can be deadly for asthma sufferers.
  • Re-write the sentence completely
Although deadly to asthma sufferers, air pollution is harmful and poses risks to all human.

Semi-colons rock! I love this punctuation mark because of the flexibility of it and what it can do to add to the complexity and depth of a piece of writing.

A semi-colon functions both as a period and a comma at the same time. In other words, the group of words on either side of the semi-colon are complete sentences. This is why this can be an option to fix those run-on's and comma splices. However, it also functions as a comma. When it does this, it is telling the reader these two sentences are carrying on the same thought and are much stronger when blended together. It tells the reader these two ideas are similar in theme and message - not just in topic.

Now here is where the pet peeve comes into play.

When we use a semi-colon to fix the run-on/comma splice problem, I personally feel if you want to make the two sentences sound like independent sentences, then use a period. If you do want to combine them, I personally recommend adding a transitional word or phrase (but not a coordinating conjunction).

Air pollution poses risks to all humans; however,  it can be deadly for asthma sufferers.

Too often, I can see authors using the semi-colon simply because the computer and their computer recommended it. Use it properly!

Just remember, using poor grammar says a lot about who you are as a writer. If you find you are getting a ton of rejections from those queries you are sending out, you might want to check the grammar. This might have a lot do do with it.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Take The Time To Learn Before You Leap

I love watching the shows on the food network and one that is fun to watch, every now and then, is Restaurant Impossible. I guess I love it, not so much for the "transformation" these people go through to turn a failing business into something great, but more to listen to the comments some of these
people make and watch Robert Irvine's face cringe. Time and time again, he asks these people, "What made you decide to go into the restaurant business?" or "What training do you have as a [insert manager, chef, hostess...etc]?" The answers, 90% of the time are always the same. They had no training

So why am I bringing this up on a blog that focuses on writing? Because there are far too many authors out there submitting projects to editors and agents, or authors just "self-publishing" their work without an ounce of knowledge about the business. These authors are piling up rejection letters, spending a lot of their own hard-earned money on editorial services, marketing and so forth, and eventually ending up like many of the individuals on Restaurant Impossible.

I am not saying that writers need to go out an earn a MFA Degree in Creative Writing. I am also not saying that people should not pursue their dreams of being a writer. What I am saying is that, regardless of which route you decide to take - traditional or self-publishing - to be successful requires learning about the business. Learn how things get published. Learn the basics of contracts. Learn how to submit projects to editors and agents. Learn how books get sold to the readers. Learn how to craft a story that isn't "just from the heart" but one that can sell. Simply LEARN!

I guess I get really frustrated when I can do a quick scan of the internet to see people blogging and complaining about all of these problems with publishing - bad contracts, getting "screwed by the publisher", piles of rejections and so forth. When you really start to dissect these rants, you see that many of these people got into these problems because of a lack of understanding. Now don't get me wrong. Yes there are some cases of authors who get into problems even after knowing what was going on, but these are really not the common situations.

Recently, I had an author who I have passed on projects several times write to me asking me for what it was going to take to get his books published. He told me how hard he was trying to write great stories, but then tossed in a phrase that made it all clear. He told me how he didn't go to conferences and was just trying to do this all on his own from what he found on the internet. Ahhhh!

There is hope here for this author. He is looking things up to try to learn, but there is so much more! Go to conferences! Find those local ones in your area and listen. Take notes. Learn.

Get online and find seminars by respectable (that's the key) instructors and learn from the comfort of your own home.

Grab those books out there that are constantly being published, again by respectable authors, explaining how the business works and listen to their suggestions.

But take the time to learn!

Don't stop writing. Keep that up, Keep those stories flowing. You might not be able to publish those little gems, but you will be learning and practicing your craft.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Upcoming Conferences On Pitching

I want to give you all some advance notice of some great chances to learn about the business of publishing as well as getting to pitch your projects to some great professionals out there.

The staff behind the organization and instruction of the Homeric Writers’ Retreat & Workshop are excited to announce The Portland Writing Workshop AND the Seattle Writign Workshop — a full-day “How to Get Published” writing event just outside Portland, on February 20, 2015 and February 21, 2014 respectively.
This writing event is a wonderful opportunity to get intense instruction over the course of one day, pitch a literary agent or editor (optional), get your questions answered, and more. Note that there are limited seats at the event (100 total). All questions about the event regarding schedule, details and registration are answered below. Thank you for your interest in the 2015 Portland Writing Workshop!
This year, they have brought in my good friend, Chuck Sambuchino from Writer's Digest!
Screen Shot 2014-01-08 at 1.09.19 PMChuck Sambuchino (,@chucksambuchino) of Writer’s Digest Books is the editor of Guide to Literary Agents as well as the Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market. His authored books include Formatting & Submitting Your ManuscriptCreate Your Writer Platform, which was praised by; andHow to Survive a Garden Gnome Attack, which was optioned for film by Sony. He oversees one of the biggest blogs in publishing (the Guide to Literary Agents Blog) as well as one of the biggest Twitter accounts in publishing (@WritersDigest). He is a freelance editor who has seen dozens of his clients get agents and/or book deals, and he has presented at almost 90 writing conferences and events over the past eight years.
The conference is also providing pitch times with:
This year’s ever-growing faculty so far includes literary agent Sandra Bishop (Transatlantic Agency), literary agent Mary C. Moore (Kimberley Cameron & Associates), literary agent Natasha Kern (Natasha Kern Literary Agency), literary agent Scott Eagan (Greyhaus Literary), agency representative Jodi Dahlke (Fuse Literary), and editor Adam O’Connor Rodriguez (Hawthorne Books).
This year’s faculty so far includes agent Kathleen Ortiz (New Leaf Literary), agent Kristin Vincent (D4EO Literary); agent Genevieve Nine (Andrea Hurst & Associates), agent Fleetwood Robbins (Waxman Leavell Literary), agent Scott Eagan (Greyhaus Literary), editor Adam O’Connor Rodriguez (Hawthorne Bookes), and agency representative Adria Olsen (Martin Literary Management), and more to come.
Make sure to check out the details by following the links below! Space will be limited so get registered today!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Art of the Pitch - What We're Really Looking For

We know you hate pitching and to be honest, there are many editors and agents who feel the same way. And yet, these pitches really can make a difference if you know what to do in that short period of time to really make it profitable for your career. Unfortunately, too many authors really do ruin all of their chances in that pitch with the approach they take before that editor and agent.

Let's begin with a known truth. We are not going to do anything until we read your story. Since this
business does revolve around the product itself, we are going to need to read the whole thing, and maybe, depending on the size of the agency, or if it is an editor, we may have to bounce it around to other people to see their feedback. Do not expect a contract right there and right then with that person. HOWEVER, you can make the sale here. Again, this is not the contract, but getting your foot in the door.

You see, the purpose of the pitch is to sell the IDEA and to sell YOURSELF as the perfect fit for what the editor or agent is looking for. Your job is to wow us with your professionalism and to demonstrate for us that your project and your writing is something we cannot live without. If you do that, when we do request your material, we will have you in our mind and waiting for it to show up in our email when we get back from the conference. You want to hook us.

Now I do have to say, you cannot force this or be something you aren't. A bad pitch is enough to make us start tuning you out and making decisions before we even read your manuscript. So, what are we looking for? Let's go through this from the beginning of that 10 minutes to the end.

The first 1-2 minutes - We are watching and listening to you. We are seeing how professional you can be. I've said it before and I'll say it again - "You never have a second chance to make a first impression." Therefore sitting down and shoving a business card in our face, or telling us this is your first time and you are nervous is not going to show you are ready. We're looking for eye contact, smiles and confidence. Seeing this makes us know we aren't going to have to drag the story out of you, or spend more time comforting you.

2-5 minutes - We want to hear about your story. Show us you can sell it to us! We need the title, genre and word count. We want to know the GMC of your characters. We want to know the conflict in the book. We want to know what the take away is for the reader. The key here is to show us you know why your story is unique.

6-9 minutes - We're back to you now. This is where we might take some time to ask questions. We're not so much interested in the project, but now we're assessing how you handle the public side of publishing? Do you know your characters well enough? How about the story? But we're also looking to see if you have a sense of your career. In this case we want to know all about your as a writer. We want to see if you have a handle on the future.

The last minute - We're likely giving you information on what to send to us. Yes, this is strictly an informational moment but we are still assessing. Are you taking notes? Do you still show that confidence you had when you came in? Did you ask relevant questions to show you are knowledgeable of the business?

The thing is, what image are you giving to that editor or agent? Are you someone we need to take seriously?