By Marissa St. James
If you’ve chosen writing as a possible career, be prepared to be constantly challenged. Some challenges will be frustrating, and try your patience, but if this is what you really want to do, then the majority of the challenges you’ll face can only help you improve your craft. There’s a great deal to be learned about this medium of communication; in fact, you should never stop learning. The best thing you can do is read as much as you can. Mysteries, romance, science fiction…the genre doesn’t really matter. The goal is to read for pleasure—and while you’re at it, you’ll be learning a great deal about writing. You’d be surprised by the things you can pick up when you least expect to.
It’s also a good idea to invest in books on writing. Most books deal with the elements of building a story: character profiles, dialogue, point of view, setting, plotting, etc. Fewer of them address the technical side of writing—grammar, spelling, and punctuation—besides the usual reminders to check for typos. I do touch briefly on a couple of elements many writers have a hard time with in my book, Doing it Write: Putting the Final Polish on Your Manuscript.
This column deals with these technical aspects of writing. While it’s meant to be a guide for a final polishing, it can also be used to avoid mistakes while you’re writing—you don’t have to wait until your story is finished. My philosophy as an editor has always been to help a writer make their work the best it can be. I’ll be the first to admit I can be a very picky editor, but in the long run it’s paid off for others. I hope this information will help you as well.
Every story is made up of sentences, each one leading into the next. Sentences convey thoughts, and to be understood, every thought should be well constructed. Sentences convey action, emotion, detail and direct/indirect thought. They can be narrative or dialogue. We can express ourselves through our characters, breathing life into them.
Sometimes we’re in a hurry to write down our thoughts before they vanish into oblivion. This is when we forget about structure—and that’s okay, because once you lose that great sentence in your head, it’s gone forever. Your first draft is meant to get down all your ideas in some sort of logical order. The second draft is for making improvements, corrections and additions. A final draft is for polishing and refining. We’re going to deal with the second and final drafts, assuming your work will be done in three versions.
If you make a habit of writing proper grammar to start, it’ll cut down on the time you need to find and correct errors and typos. Such a habit is hard to establish since we tend to write the way we speak—but once enforced, you’ll find writing comes much easier to you.
One word of caution here… When you go over your manuscript, be careful not to over-edit. Too many writers end up editing their work to death. The final product may end up nothing like what you originally started out with.
To begin with basics, sentences usually come in three forms: simple, compound and complex.
SIMPLE: contains a subject, verb and predicate.
John stared at his wife.
It doesn’t get much simpler than that. Short sentences are best used to emphasize a point.
John stared malevolently at his wife. Mary ran.
Out of context, we don’t know what’s going on or how scared Mary is, but we don’t need a lot of words to explain her fear. The previous sentence says it all.
Keep the very short sentences to a minimum. Too many will make your work sound like choppy grade-school reading, and it eventually becomes annoying. You don’t want your book to become some reader’s ‘wall banger.’ Your best bet is to vary the length throughout your work.
COMPOUND: has more than one subject and predicate.
On the other hand, try not to make your sentences too long. Overly long sentences tend to contain too much detail, and by the time the reader gets to the end of it, they’re probably staring at the sentence and thinking, “Huh?” They’ve undoubtedly missed the point you were trying to make.
John flipped through the colorful pages in the magazine, then he tossed it on the table with the others.
There are two complete sentences in the above example. It can be broken up and a little more detail added, or left as is. If you’re going to leave it as is, then you’ll want to omit the pronoun ‘he’ since it isn’t necessary, except to add to the word count. (That’s another topic to tackle with a subsequent post.)
John flipped through the colorful pages in the magazine. He tossed it on the table with the others when none of the articles caught his interest.
Now we have a pretty good idea that John is bored. If you have a long descriptive sentence, try breaking it up into two or three smaller sentences. The description will be more palatable, and the reader will get more out of it.
The worst descriptions I’ve seen written are when a character steps into a room. The writer often thinks they have to describe every stick of furniture, every color, every texture. If the room is important to the story, then a complete description may be necessary for the reader to get a feel for it. The description can also be broken up to fit the scenes as needed. Here’s an example of too much detail in long sentences:
John stepped into the small office. The thick dark brown rug was a color match to the wall paneling which covered all the walls from floor to ceiling. The old oak desk was huge and took up the space in front of one of the walls. Behind it, was a comfortable looking high-backed leather chair that sat close to the desk in front of the hidden window. Covering the single window, dark velvet curtains seemed out of place. The only light came from a small lamp sitting on a cabinet in the corner of the room.
Here’s one way it could be handled to make it more interesting.
John entered the small office. The color of the thick rug seemed to creep up the walls to the ceiling. He felt as if he’d stepped into a box. It was hard to tell where the rug ended and the paneling began. The huge oak desk looked old, compared to the new leather chair behind it. John moved closer to the desk and looked up at the window. He resisted the urge to tear down the dark velvet curtains and let in some light. A small lamp gave off a soft glow in one corner, but cast more shadows than it lit the room. A feeling of claustrophobia overcame him. He stepped back, ready to bolt, but froze when he sensed the presence behind him.
The character’s reaction to the furnishings, and the room itself, add more interest to the scene. Sentence length and type is varied.
Another point you want to minimize is the use of prepositional phrases. ‘In the house,’ ‘out the door,’ ‘after the fact,’ ‘beyond the horizon,’ When too many are written within one sentence, it can set up a sing-song pattern that quickly becomes annoying. There are better ways to express what’s going on than in a series of prepositional phrases.
All the paths in the garden were lined with colorful flowers.
The garden paths were lined with colorful flowers.
Both sentences say the same thing, but the second one is more concise and far less annoying.
COMPLEX: uses clauses to add detail. The biggest mistake writers make, beginners in particular, is starting almost every sentence with a clause.
Dismayed by Mary’s frequent absences, John began making phone calls to locate her. Playing innocent, Mary’s best friend pretended not to know where Mary was. Taking matters into his own hands, John decided to hire a private detective.
The flow of the scene is quickly broken up by too often using clauses to start off sentences.
John was fed up with Mary’s frequent absences, and began making calls to locate her. When he called her best friend, the woman answered his questions without telling him anything. John slammed down the phone in a fury. There was only one way left to handle the situation—he had to hire a private detective.
Once in a great while, it is necessary to start a sentence with a clause to keep the flow going. When you get the hang of using clauses properly, you’ll develop a sense of their place within a story.
I should make mention here about sentence fragments. Like short sentences, they should be used very sparingly. A fragment is missing the verb, and is more like a long clause with no life of its own and a purely contextual purpose.
These three types of sentences are the basis of all writing, whether it’s fiction, non-fiction, office reports, or even letters. Learning these differences is half the battle.
This deal was worth a great sum of money to John’s company. He had ten minutes to get to his client’s office. When he finally arrived, the secretary glanced up at him. Too late.
From Marissa St. James’ Doing it Write: Putting the Final Polish on Your Manuscript, Copyright © 2006 PageTurner Editions, available at Amazon.com for Kindle, Barnes & Noble for Nook and iTunes for Mac-based devices. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.
Guest columnist Marissa St James writes sweet romance. Her books include Lady in Black and Other Tales of Paranormal Romance, The Legend and the Laird, Liberty’s Belle, and many others. Find them all and keep up with Marissa’s writings and doings at www.msjbookshelf.blogspot.com and www.marissastjames.blogspot.com.