Ask Giff: Dialogue Tags, A Punctuation Primer

Last week I got an e-mail from a reader about punctuating dialogue. I was glad to get the question, because it’s also a pet peeve of mine. Here’s her question:

I’ve been reading a lot lately, and I also do beta-reading for some of my writer friends. My problem: it seems like everyone has a different way of punctuating dialogue, and I’m at a loss to figure out what’s right. I’ve read up on the subject but I’m still kind of confused. Is there a simple explanation you can give me?

Answer: There is a simple explanation, but it’s not a short one.

design desk display eyewear

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One of the modern style choices we have is substituting character actions for dialogue tags. This can be quite effective in making a sentence or scene more active. However, the punctuation needed in each case is different, and bad punctuation is one way to appear as a novice writer (as well as annoying any grammar nerds among your readers).

So, what makes a dialogue tag? There are two criteria: it must identify the speaker and describe the dialogue, though it doesn’t always have to be in that particular order. He asked, she said, John murmured or whispered, Stacey shouted or screamedthese are all dialogue tags.

Examples:

I’ll walk you back to your ship,” she (identity) said (description).

I need to take a nap,” he (identity) mumbled (description).

Do you want to go out tonight?” John (identity) asked (description).

I don’t know who did it!” shouted (description) Stacey (identity).

The proper punctuation of the first two sentences shows the comma inside the closing quotes, followed by the dialogue tag. In the third & fourth sentences, the question mark or exclamation mark takes the place of the comma, again inside the quotes. If the first word after the dialogue is not a proper noun (such as John or Stacey), that word is not capitalized.

So the first thing to remember is that whatever punctuation you use for the spoken words, whether it’s a comma or ellipses, question mark or em-dash, it’s ALWAYS going to come inside the close quotes.

And what happens when you want to include a character action after the dialogue tag?

“I’ll walk you back to your ship,” she said, falling into step beside him.

You identify the speaker, describe the dialogue, then follow the dialogue tag with the additional information. The rules for punctuation stay the same.

But what about that substitution we talked about earlier, where you want to replace the dialogue tag with a character action? That’s where it all goes sideways. The wrong way is to follow the dialogue tag rules, like this:

“I’ll walk you back to your ship,” she fell into step beside him.

Because while “she fell into step” gives you the identity of the speaker (“she”), it does not describe the dialogue, so it doesn’t meet the criteria for a dialogue tag. Therefore, that phrase needs to become its own sentence.

“I’ll walk you back to your ship.” She fell into step beside him.

The dialogue ends with a period within the closed quotes, and the pronoun “she” becomes the first word in a new sentence, so it must be capitalized.

More examples:

I need to take a nap,” he mumbled wearily.
“I need to take a nap.” He could feel his whole body drooping.

Do you want to go out tonight?” John asked with a grin.
“Do you want to go out tonight?” John gave her a suggestive grin.

I don’t know who did it!” shouted Stacey, then stalked away.
“I don’t know who did it!” With a final angry look, Stacey stalked away.

So, simply put: if your phrase identifies and describes the dialogue, it’s a dialogue tag (even if you add additional elements to it). If it describes a character’s action rather than the character’s words, it’s not a dialogue tag and needs to become a new sentence.

Now, who’s got another grammar/punctuation peeve?

“Ask Giff” gives you real answers to real sentence construction problems. Whether you have a general question or a specific sentence that needs help, feel free to submit it on the contact form with the subject line “Ask Giff”.

7 Great Authors Take on the “RULES OF WRITING”

We’ve all heard about the RULES we need to follow in order to be “good” writers. No adverbs, no passive voice, no split infinitives, show don’t tell, limit dialogue tags to “said” & “asked”, use only one POV per chapter―these are just a few of the absolutes we’re faced with every day.

I’ve heard some RULES that are downright silly, such as: only one comma per sentence; no more than 4 sentences per paragraph; no conjunctions. The latest one to make the make the rounds is “no gerunds”, where most proponents of the RULE think a gerund is any word ending in “ing”. (It’s not. In fact, the only two gerunds in this article are “writing” and “painting”. For more info, read this post.)

The problem, it seems to me, is taking the style choice an author has made and proclaiming it a universal RULE.

Yes, I said “style choice”. You can decide that adverbs are not for you, that you always want to show and not tell, or to use no dialogue tags at all. A thriller writer may make some choices that a literary writer might denounce. But imagine if everyone took their favorite style choice and pronounced it a RULE for all to follow. That would almost surely lead to a cookie-cutter approach to writing, and individual creativity would suffer.

What would the state of literature today be if Faulkner followed Hemingway’s choices? if Fitzgerald was ruled by Cervantes? if Cain followed Chaucer’s? Cormac McCarthy consistently uses only the period and comma as punctuation. Should we all, as modern writers, follow his example?

pile of books

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Don’t be so blinded by the authority behind a RULE that the choice you make hurts instead of helping. Focus on the rhythm of your work first―do you want staccato or lyrical? are you chasing a serial killer or relating a love story? or maybe both in one novel? There is no RULE that says you can’t have it all as you craft your manuscript.

The rhythm you seek will give you the choices that best benefit your story. Then you can join the ranks of these esteemed authors who know all the RULES and when to break them:

Truman Capote: Writing has laws of perspective, of light and shade just as painting does, or music. If you are born knowing them, fine. If not, learn them. Then rearrange the RULES to suit yourself.

Henry David Thoreau: Any fool can make a RULE, And any fool will mind it.

Scott Turow: I think that you must be aware of the existing conventions. …That does not mean that you cannot reinvent them in your own way.

Anne Rice: …any RULE you hear from one writer [that] doesn’t work for you, disregard it completely.

Neil Gaiman: The main RULE of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a RULE for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other RULES. Not ones that matter.

G. K. Chesterton: I owe my success to having listened respectfully to the very best advice, and then going away and doing the exact opposite.

Joyce Carol Oates: Best tip for writers: not to listen to any silly tips for writers.

The Rules of Writing: No Gerunds?

While doing research recently for an ESL student, I came across another “rule of writing”, to wit:

Don’t use gerunds; they make your writing weak.

To qualify as a gerund a word must be:

  1. a verb with an “ing” suffix
  2. that performs the job of a noun.

Take these sentences as examples:

I like hiking. (The gerund acts as the object of the sentence.)

Hiking is fun. (The gerund acts as the subject of the sentence.)

Now, I guess you could eliminate the gerund in the first sentence by saying “I like to hike”, but I don’t see much difference between the two statements. I think your choice would depend more on what your character’s natural speech patterns are than on any “rule”. (And if, like me, your manuscripts run over the recommended length for your genre, every little added “to” means you have to cut another word―a fate worse than death!)

Rewriting the second sentence as “To hike is fun” makes it sound formal. It gives me the feeling I’m reading a foreign translation rather than common American parlance.

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And here’s the other, more important thing: in every article I read, the proponents of the “no gerund rule” were really objecting to sentences like this:

I was hiking in the woods.

But “hiking”, in this instance, fails to meet the qualifications for a gerund. It ends in “ing”, but it’s not acting as a noun. It’s part of the verb construction, specifically the past progressive tense.

So what the “no gerunds rule” proponents are trying to say is: there’s a “no progressive tenses rule”. By various examples, they also declare that there’s a “no conditional tenses rule”, and/or a “no perfect/pluperfect tenses rule”. In other words, write only in simple present, simple past, or imperfect tense.

How boring!

The reasoning, from what I gather, is that all these other tenses fall into a subset of the “active/passive rule”. For a “more active” sentence, they’d encouraged you to write it this way:

I hiked in the woods.

However, the rewrite doesn’t give me the same anticipation factor. If you start a dialogue with “I was hiking in the woods…”, I’m immediately looking for a story to follow. “I hiked in the woods” is more self-contained, an answer to the question, “What did you do today?” It doesn’t give me a sense of more to come. So for me, it’s a less appealing choice, and even less so if you’re creating a scene of rising tension.

(See what I did there? In the last sentence, I used three words that end in “ing” and not one of them is a gerund. Don’t fall into the same trap the “no gerunds rule” folks did!)

In my opinion, most of the “rules of writing” we see today have nothing to do with writing correctly. Instead, they are style choices that individuals make and choose to follow in their own works. They are, in effect, guidelines for that writer, not rules for all writers.

In particular, the “no gerunds rule” is one that seems to have a limited practical application. And I’d say the same for the “no (whatever) tense rules”. They’re like the Oxford comma; if you don’t want to use them, then don’t. But there are going to be times when clarity (or word count) depends upon it.

When it comes to writing, my philosophy is always:

Choose the best word for the job.

It applies whether you use a noun, verb, gerund, adverb, adjective, dialogue tag, or a word you made up to bring your story’s world to life. Choose the best word and your readers will be so bowled over by your writing, they won’t stop to wonder whether that word qualifies as a gerund or past progressive tense.

So, what style guidelines do you prefer? What’s your writing philosophy?

For an easy read on gerunds, visit the SproutEnglish blog.

For more on verb conjugation, see Verbix.com.

#Writing: THE RULES vs. STYLE CHOICES

#amwriting #grammar #style #rules

In the past few weeks, I’ve seen too many articles that propound “THE RULES of Writing”. An overabundance, if you will, most of which don’t make any distinction between THE RULES and STYLE CHOICES.

THE RULES are universal. For instance:

– a sentence must have a subject and a verb;
– the subject and verb must agree;
– participles should not dangle;
– a sentence may have only one viewpoint: it cannot start out in first person and end in third;
– Etc., etc., etc.

It’s possible for a good writer to break THE RULES occasionally, but s/he must realize what s/he is doing in order for it to be effective. The universal RULES of writing can be found in any reputable GRAMMAR guide; one I like is Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab (OWL).

Anything above and beyond the universal RULES is a STYLE CHOICE:

– No adverbs? Style choice;
– No compound sentences? Style choice;
– No words over three syllables? Style choice;
– No dialogue tags but “said” and “asked”? Style choice;
– Etc., etc., etc.

STYLE CHOICES are found in “Style Guides” and are not universal rules. I, for one, would be much more apt to appreciate their advice if the guides followed these so-called “rules” in their own publications. But, almost universally, they don’t. More scholarly types than I have proven that even the ubiquitous Elements of Style by Strunk & White has broken most of the “rules” it espouses. Go ahead, try to count the adverbs in any guide that propounds “no adverbs”. Count the passive verbs in a guide that propounds “no passive verbs”. It’s almost impossible to write fiction (or to write about fiction) and follow these strictures at all times.

(Of course, there are many who get around the “no adverbs” stricture by substituting an adverbial phrase — eliminating an adverb like “tremulously” in favor of a phrase like “in a tremulous voice”. To me, that’s worse, as it adds empty words to the story.)

Adding to the confusion is that, in the history of literature, STYLE CHOICES are transitory. No one writes like Chaucer any more; few write like Faulkner or Austen. The current trend toward starkness and simplicity will no doubt be as short-lived.

Now, I’m not saying that STYLE CHOICES are wrong. On the contrary, each writer should make these choices for him- or her-self. If you want to use smaller words and shorter paragraphs, you are perfectly free to do so. But that doesn’t put writers who use longer words or longer paragraphs in the wrong. Or longer words and shorter paragraphs. Or longer paragraphs… or whatever.

Touting your own STYLE CHOICES to the world at large as “rules” is akin to attempting to convert someone to your religion, and my best advice there is “Don’t do it!”

You and your writer friends will both be happier with the outcome.

 

P.S. Can you find which of the RULES stated above is broken rule in this article? How many times has it been broken?

Later, Look Back: Another Shortcut for Fixing Misplaced Modifiers

#grammar #amwriting #amediting

Modifiers, as we’ve discussed, are the words we use to provide additional information about another word. Modifiers include adverbs, adjectives, and clauses. Today the focus is on modifying clauses and how they relate to our stories. The problem known as “misplaced modifiers” occurs when the clause or phrase is not connected to the word(s) it’s supposed to modify, and so causes confusion. I discussed the first rule of modifying clauses in this article: First, Look Ahead.

Briefly, the first rule is: when a sentence opens with a modifying clause, the clause must refer to the subject of the sentence. But what happens when the modifying clause comes after the subject of the sentence? Then the clause must modify the last noun (whether a person or thing) that appears in that sentence. (Exception: there must be agreement in gender; when dealing with a pronoun or possessive, you’d go back to the last person of that gender who was mentioned.)

For example:

Bill vowed to get her back at any cost when he kidnapped his sister.

The modifying phrase here is “when he kidnapped his sister”. In this case, the last male person referenced is Bill. Therefore, the “he” in the modifying clause must refer to Bill. Substituting Bill for “he” in the sentence, we wind up with this:

Bill vowed to get her back at any cost when (Bill) kidnapped his sister.

It makes no sense at all, but it’s an easy fix. Substitute the kidnapper’s name (or another identifier) for “he”, and we have:

Bill vowed to get her back at any cost when Mike kidnapped his sister.

Or

Bill vowed to get her back at any cost when the intruder kidnapped his sister.

We could even turn it around to:

When the intruder kidnapped his sister, Bill vowed to get her back at any cost.

All three of these sentences are correct and all now properly identify the person who did the kidnapping. But until we identified the other person, all male pronouns belonged to Bill.

Here’s another example:

Never buy a car from a dealer with a broken odometer.

You figured it out, didn’t you? The last person named was the dealer, and he didn’t have a broken odometer. The modifier belongs to the noun “car”, and the proper way to phrase this sentence is:

Never buy a car with a broken odometer from a dealer.

As with the first rule, it can be apparent what a writer means in a sentence like Never buy a car from a dealer with a broken odometer. But it’s not up to the reader to interpret our work. It’s our job as writers to say exactly what we mean to say.

Here’s a third example:

Looking in vain for an answer to the questions, all excitement dwindled.

This one is fairly easy to recognize as wrong. But it may not be so easy to identify the problem and correct it, because the problem doesn’t fall solely within the modifying clause. The problem is that the sentence doesn’t have a proper subject/verb combination. It doesn’t say who was looking for the answers, or whose excitement dwindled. In fact, this sentence (or I should say “statement”) consists of two incomplete clauses.

Every sentence needs to give the reader someone/something to whom they can attribute the actions that are represented. So the correction would be:

As Bill looked in vain for an answer to the questions, his excitement dwindled.

Or

As we looked in vain for an answer to the questions, all of our excitement dwindled.

Most of these were pretty simple fixes. The problem is not usually how to fix misplaced modifiers, it’s how to find them in the first place. So how do you recognize a misplaced modifier when you’re editing your own work? Just as the first rule of thumb is FIRST, LOOK AHEAD, the second rule of thumb is:

LATER, LOOK BACK.  When the modifying clause comes later in the sentence (after the subject), look back to find the last person/noun mentioned. If the clause correctly modifies that person or noun, you’re golden. If it doesn’t, your sentence needs work.

Again, as in our first article, some will say that a previous sentence or paragraph contains the necessary information to show the reader what we mean. But the simple fact is that every sentence needs to stand on its own. Sentences are the building blocks of our work; every sentence needs to say exactly what we want it to say, without interpretation. To protest that the information needed is in the previous paragraph, or in the next sentence, is the equivalent of saying it’s on the previous page, or in the next chapter. Or on page 45 of Oliver Twist.

“But wait,” you say, “aren’t there exceptions to the rules?”

Of course there are. But we can only get away with breaking the rules if we stick to them most of the time. Then, what we’ve done is considered “poetic license” (or “literary license” if you prefer). Otherwise, it’s likely to be seen as just plain laziness.

Got a sentence/paragraph that you don’t know what to do with? Is it keeping you up nights? For specific input on a specific problem, send your sentences (up to 150 words) along with your question, using the About Me/Contact Info page on this blog. Be sure to put “Ask Giff” in the subject line. Grammar is my passion and I’m happy to help!

First, Look Ahead: A Shortcut for Fixing Misplaced Modifiers

#grammar #amwriting #amediting

We’ve got a fairly complex question this time, with more than one example. A friend of mine, also a writer, is having some trouble with modifying clauses, also called modifying phrases. Modifiers, as you may know, are the words we use to provide additional information about another word. Modifiers include adverbs, adjectives, and clauses. Today the focus is on modifying clauses and how they relate to the characters in our stories.

The problem known as “misplaced modifiers” occurs when the clause or phrase is not connected to the word(s) it’s supposed to modify. The first rule of modifying clauses is:

When a sentence opens with a modifying clause, the clause must refer to the subject of the sentence.

I just recently came across a perfect example in my own work; this sentence has been there for at least three years now and no one (including 2 critique partners, 3 beta readers and my mother) had noticed it.

Since childhood, John Patrick taught his children …”

The opening clause must modify the subject (John Patrick), so this sentence makes no sense. It actually says:

Since John Patrick’s childhood, he taught his children…”

You’ll probably say it’s perfectly obvious that what I meant. But it is, nonetheless, completely wrong. I’ve finally corrected it and it now reads:

As this child and his siblings grew, John Patrick taught them…”

I replaced the original modifying clause with a complete clause: one that has its own subject and verb. A pretty simple fix.

Now let’s look at a couple of the examples that were giving my friend agida*:

While he explained his presence, Bill appeared and…”

Since the opening clause modifies the subject (Bill), both “he” and “his” in this sentence refer to Bill. When you substitute Bill’s name for the pronoun and possessive, this sentence says:

While (Bill) explained (Bill’s) presence, Bill appeared and…”

Obviously, Bill could not be in the middle of explaining things just as he appeared. However, the sentence before this was about George. George was the one explaining his presence, so the modifying phrase belongs in George’s sentence. Another simple fix.

Here’s a third example:

While doing interrogations on Bill’s case, George told him about the incident last year.”

Insert the subject, George, into the modifying clause, and the sentence says:

While (George was) doing interrogations on Bill’s case, George told him about the incident last year.”

However, the reader has already been informed that George is a “person of interest” in the investigation. The opening clause actually refers to the cop who is doing the interrogations. To correct it, it needs the cop’s name in it:

While Mike was doing interrogations on Bill’s case, George told him about the incident last year.”

Again, a simple fix. The trouble is not usually how to fix a misplaced modifier, it’s how to recognize it in the first place.

So how do you recognize a misplaced modifier when you’re editing your own work? The rule of thumb is:

FIRST, LOOK AHEAD. When the modifying clause comes first, look ahead to find the subject of your sentence. If the clause correctly modifies the subject, you’re golden. If it doesn’t, your sentence needs work.

If you’ve followed my blog for any length of time, you know that I’m not a big fan of all the Rules. To me, there are two kinds of rules–the ones that improve our craft from the ground up, and the others that are simply a sign of the times. The rules of sentence structure fall into the first category: without them, most of us would be writing gibberish. I call them eternal rules, and they’ve been followed by every accomplished writer from Shakespeare on. The more modern rules (like the “said/ask” rule, the “no adverbs” rule) were dreamed up about two generations ago and are probably transitory; in two more generations, other – even more modern – rules will take their place.

The eternal rules create logic and symmetry. Many times, what seems logical to a writer will be confusing to a reader. As writers, we have the inside scoop – we know exactly what we mean to say. But the reader is depending on us to make it perfectly clear to them as well, and the misplaced modifier rules will help to ensure that we do.

So, do you want to know what happens when the modifying clause comes in the middle of a sentence? Check out this spot next week.

* For those not familiar with the term (or the spelling), agida is Italian slang for heartburn. Pronounced ah-jid-ah.

Critique Partners: What if the Relationship Bombs?

#amwriting #amediting

Your relationships with Critique Partners and Beta Readers are all-important. But let’s face it, you and your partner(s) start out strangers (or at least you should most of the time, see previous articles here and there). So partnering is going to be trial and error, at least at first. What, then, happens when the relationship isn’t working out for you?

This is a sticky situation. You have no desire to insult someone, and brushing them off can be just as hurtful. But if the feedback you’re getting is of little or no use, the relationship may have to end. How you manage that is up to you, but it’s important to realize that your reputation may eventually be at stake.

When I completed my first novel, LET THE CANYONS WEEP, I found two critique partners on-line. Both had written thrillers. I might have had more luck with other writers of Historical Fiction, but they were the only two people who replied to my post. I didn’t want to turn them down.

For one of them, English was their second language and their goal was to publish in America. I thought I could be of great help in converting “The King’s English” into “American”; that was one of the services I offered, and it seemed to be of great interest. However, after reviewing two sections of the revamped manuscript, I realized that none of my suggestions had been taken into account. I felt a bit let down.

And, although I had fully explained up front that the work was a literary work with an undercurrent of romance, the other critiquer wanted me to turn my book into a shoot-’em-up western. Not an option.

Aside from that, the only feedback I was getting was that I needed to follow “The Rules.” Now I know all the rules – learned them in grade school, when diagramming sentences was something I did for fun. (Yes, I’m that much of a grammar nerd!) I’m a firm believer in these word of the Dalai Lama: “Know the rules well, so you can break them effectively.” I know them, and I break them when the situation commands it.

The rules I was told to follow included most of what we now view as archaic (like never starting a sentence with a conjunction). And others were rules I’ve never heard of before or after:

  • Don’t use more than one comma per sentence.
  • Never use an em-dash.
  • Never use ellipses.
  • Never use the plu-perfect tense: reword your sentence to stay in simple past.
  • No flashbacks.
  • No internal dialogue.

Etc., etc., and so forth … I couldn’t help wondering what kind of writing courses these Rules came from.

But that’s beside the point. The point was the relationships just weren’t working out. And what was I going to do about it?

I know people who have broken off with a critique partner after the first 50 pages. And I thought about that – I really did. But I also thought about what the possible repercussions of that decision might be.

These days, anyone and everyone can write a review on Amazon, GoodReads, etc. Most people are very honest in their opinions, pointing out both the strong and weak points of a work. But I’ve seen some posters who seem to take pleasure in denigrating others’ works – their reviews seem like personal vendettas. And I didn’t want to put myself in the position of inviting that sort of feedback.

I may have taken the easy way out: I completed my critiques of their works, and accepted their completed critiques of mine. I thanked them for their time and diligence, for their willingness to help. And I moved on to three new critique partners (two write historicals, one writes thrillers, and all of them are wonderful!)

Would you have done what I did? Were you ever in a critique or beta partnership that didn’t work out? What other solutions would you recommend?

ASK GIFF (or: a real live Grammar Nerd wants to answer your questions

Got a grammar question? Got a sentence that needs something, but you’re not exactly sure what? Tenses don’t jive? Can’t tell if you need a colon or a semicolon?

Well, I’m that kid in school who was always “first hand up” when it was time to diagram sentences. Yeah, a real grammar nerd. Grammar makes me happy, and misuse of it drives me nuts!

So I’m offering you the chance to pose your grammar questions here. Now, I don’t mean your technical questions – there are plenty of on-line resources for that, and my favorites are listed on the “Writers’ Resources” page here.

But sometimes the technical resources (aka “the rules”) don’t help a lot in real life. I remember trying one of the “grammar checkers” and, after it had eliminated the words it didn’t like (including “complex” words, which it defined as any word over 3 syllables — simplicity, anyone?), my 14-word sentence was reduced to “Brian have home.” Not quite the idea I was trying to put across.

So I’m looking for a specific question about your sentence or paragraph that needs help. Something you know isn’t quite right, but you just can’t seem to find the answer that unravels your confusion and makes it work.

To give you an idea of how I might answer, here are a couple of real examples from real people I’ve worked with (used with their consent, of course):

Question #1:  I have two versions of this sentence, and I need to know which one is better:

  1. She watched him amble through the gate and disappearing into the darkness as he walked down the beach.
  2. She watched him amble through the gate and as he walked down the beach, he disappeared into darkness.

My Response:  In the first sentence, the tenses don’t agree. It should either be:

  1. She watched him amble through the gate and disappear into … OR

  2. She watched him ambling through the gate and disappearing into …

But I don’t think the first sentence, even with the correct tenses, reads all that well. It seems to say he ambled through the gate as he walked down the beach. I’m pretty sure that’s not what you have in mind.

On the other hand, your second sentence already has agreement between the tenses and it’s easy to see just what you mean. However, I’d suggest eliminating “and” and using a semicolon instead. Why, you ask? Because, though the two clauses are related, each one has its own subject. In the first clause, it’s “she”, while in the second one it’s “he”.

So for me, the optimum sentence would be: She watched him amble through the gate; as he walked down the beach, he disappeared into darkness.

Question #2:  I’m having trouble with this sentence, and can’t figure out how to make it better:

He had a square face with a wide nose and a strong jaw-line, his dark-brown hair pronouncing his warm blue eyes.

Response:  I understand exactly what you mean to say. The problem is that “pronounce” as a verb means “to say”. You could go with “his dark-brown hair made his warm blue eyes more pronounced” or “his dark-brown hair played up his warm blue eyes” (or even “the warmth in his blue eyes”, if the other sounds too sing-song to you.)

So what do you say?   Want some help with a sentence, a comma, a verb? Send your question through the ABOUT ME/CONTACT page; I’ll post at least one every week (anonymously if you like), and give it my best shot!

Oh, goody! GRAMMAR!!!!

The Query Letter

The manuscript was completed, polished and pared down to the optimal length for a first-time author. And it was time for me to write a query letter and see if I could get an agent interested in my book.

There are a ton of resources online with instructions on how to write a query, and some that even tell you how NOT to write one. I read through most of them and developed what I thought was an award-winning letter.

Then I found an online forum created specifically for review and critique of Query letters. Maybe my query could be improved (slightly) to make the very first agent who reads it call me immediately. So I posted my beautifully polished letter and sat back to hear the praises sung.

Oy vez! Was I wrong! The comments flew thick and fast. You should this, you shouldn’t that, use this format, tell us that. Whew! Wait a minute! Let me just catch my breath for a bit and try to understand.

Okay. So maybe some agents want the title, genre and word count at the end of the letter instead of up front. I can work with that. Some want to see who my prospective audience might be: that’s a little harder, but I can do that, too. However, everyone — and I mean EVERYONE — wants me to “show, not tell”.

Huh? What?

Now, I’m a really literal person. I get hung up on semantics a lot, and this phrase is making no sense to me at all. I’ve written a story. Told a story. And this letter is telling you about the story I’ve told. So what do they mean, “show not tell”? They want diagrams? pictures? I’m completely stumped.

I try again and again to write this query properly, and still get the same critique: “show, don’t tell.”  My hair is coming out in clumps, my fingers shake when I type, and my feet are cold all the time. And still I get the same reaction. “Show, don’t tell.”

I want to give up.

And then some blessed person says, “You’re describing things to us. Show us the action.”

What? Wait! Oh, I get it — you want actions, not reactions. I’ve been giving you reactions. I see it now. One more stab …

and I have, at last, after 3 weeks and 12 attempts, a successful query letter.

Now of course the letter hasn’t been asked to do its job yet — I’ll get to that later this week. But at least it has the format and content it needs to catch that always-elusive agent’s attention.

So if, like me, you get stuck in the middle of Query Purgatory, there is a way out. If people are telling you “Show, don’t tell”, just give them the action. Take out the emotions, the descriptions, the stuff that was the hardest to write. They don’t want that. They want the action, the plot, the problems that characters face. Not how they feel about it, but what they’re going to DO about it.

And if you want, use my little formula: not “show, don’t tell”, but “actions not reactions.”

And now wish me the best of Irish luck as I prepare to send this lovely little letter out into the world on its own.