Friday, August 28, 2009

Rant for the Day: Using Misspellings to Indicate Speech Patterns
By Persia Walker

As an editor at Gentle Pen Editorial Services, I see this time and time again: writers using egregious misspellings to indicate speech patterns, specifically poor grammar and poor pronunciation. My response is always the same: Don't do it.

I'll keep the reasons short and sweet:

  1. It makes your copy difficult to understand.
  2. It makes your copy difficult to understand.
  3. It makes your copy difficult to understand.
Anything that makes your copy difficult to understand slows down your story and kills reader interest. After a while, the reader (ahem, that does include your editor) will want to toss your book against a wall.

So what do you do when you want to indicate a character's inability or unwillingness to speak standard English? Use standard English, at least as far as spelling and punctuation are concerned. You can play with the grammar and syntax, but you may not play with spelling and punctuation. (Okay, you can, but only to a very, very, very limited degree.)

"Whatchu doin callin me at dis time ah mornin? I'ma gonna wup you till you cain't stand iffin ya do dat agin!"
Laugh if you want to, but folks, it's painful writing this. No, I didn't get a manuscript with this exact sentence. I would never hurt or embarrass an author that way. However, I have received manuscripts -- and I do mean way too many -- that contain page after page of these oddball phonetic misspellings. I have never given in to the urge to throw these manuscripts against the digital wall, but I admit that in one case, I gave up. I just couldn't plow through pages and pages of such gobbledygook.

I had to tell the author that I had no idea whether her story was good. Why? Because I simply couldn't get to it. The wall of nonsensical misspellings she had erected wore me down. It obliterated any insight into the story she was trying to tell. She was insulted. I never heard from her again. It was a shame, too, because the synopsis of the story indicated that it was worth telling.

Back to the above example. You might say, what's the problem? By themselves, these sentences are easy to understand. But imagine pages and pages and more pages of dribble just like them. Pretty soon, you'd be sick of it. Any reader would be. Reading pages of idiosyncratic misspellings is like being forced to repeatedly listen to a very bad joke that wasn't funny to begin with.

Let's try rewriting the sentences with normal spellings, but keeping the odd syntax.
"What you doing calling me at this time of morning? I'll whip you till you can't stand if you do it again."
OK, I did noodle with the tenses in the second sentence a bit, but mostly I just corrected the misspellings. Now, the sentences are readable and perfectly convey the folksy vocal pattern of the speaker.

A few "gonnas" or "ain'ts" aren't going to destroy your readability, but any more than that and you're entering risky waters. You're damaging your story and doing a disservice to your readers. So please, stick to standard spelling. Develop an ear for how people arrange their words and formulate their sentences, for phrases that they rely on.

For those of you who would never use misspellings to indicate dialect, I apologize. I just had to get this off my chest. Now, I've got to get back to work, editing another one of those manuscripts. Grrrr....

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Cover Me

By Angela Henry

Sorry I’ve been MIA. I’ve been busy working, writing, and preparing for the publication of Schooled in Murder, book #4 in my Kendra Clayton series. One of the things I’ve been doing a lot of lately is studying book cover design. Let’s face it; people do judge a book by its cover. A beautiful and eye-catching cover won’t make me buy a book. But it will make me pick it up and read the cover copy. Since I’m self-publishing Schooled in Murder, it is very important to me to have an appealing and professional looking cover. And I’m happy that this time around I’m in total control over what it will look like.

Because I work in a library and am surrounded by books on a daily basis, I’ve been able to determine what works best in terms of capturing my attention as a reader. But publishing companies have their own ideas when it comes to covers. Most get the stock photography treatment. I’m assuming they use so much stock photography because it’s affordable. And I ought to know because I found the cover image for SIM for six dollars on But a lot of stock photography is royalty free, meaning anyone can use it, which often results in multiple books getting the same cover.

Case in point: Take a look at the covers for Jill Nelson’s Let’s Get it On, Brenda Jackson’s Some Like it Hot, and Maureen Smith’s Touch of Heaven. Three hot covers with the same hot guy. As much as I love the cover image I've picked out, I'm not sure I could use it knowing it's been used for another cover. Sadly most authors don't get a choice. They have to take what's given to them.

So what captures my attention as a reader? Color. I love bold covers with vivid color. But I also love black and white images with a pop of color. I have no problem with people on the cover as long as the image conveys what the book is about, like the gorgeous, kick ass cover for Seressia Glass’s upcoming urban fantasy novel, Shadow Blade, which by the way I can't wait to read! If you have a suggestion for an eye-catching cover you’ve seen lately, or if you’re proud of your own book cover, I’d love to see it. Please post the link in the comments.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Finding Your Voice
By Patricia Sargeant

Your writer's voice is the most powerful selling tool you possess.

I think I've discussed this before on this blog. I'm certain you've heard it before. But it's worth repeating. A lot of writers stumble over writing "rules," and forget that - beyond the goal/motivation/conflict; the Hero's Journey and the point of view - the most important thing to develop is a strong, unique voice. Sometimes that means breaking the rules. But that's a subject for another blog. Right now, I want to talk about the voices.

I've heard agents and editors say that what drew them to one author over another is the selling author's writing voice. The author they pursued had a strong voice, a unique way of telling a story. They connected with that writer's voice. It excited them.

I have a hard time describing my voice. Do you? It's easier for me to describe someone else's voice than it is to describe my own. Do you have the same struggle? I think it's because we're so close to our writing. We know we enjoy what we've written, but it's hard to say why.

I read a writing craft blog the other day posted by a freelance editor who explained that one way to determine what your voice entails is to identify your favorite part of the writing process. Do you like to plot? Then your writing strength lies within the story. Do you prefer dialogue over description? Then you probably have a fast-pace storytelling style. Do you enjoy crafting your characters and letting them direct your story? Then your voice is character-driven.

What approach do you prefer? Or do you take another direction with your writing?

One last tip that you may have heard before. The best way to develop your writer's voice is to write. Write often, write a lot. The more you write, the more developed will be your writer's voice.

Write on!

Friday, August 14, 2009

Write What You Know ... Hmmm?
By Persia Walker

When interviewers are looking for questions to ask me, they often seize upon the fact that I worked for a while (a relatively short while) as a journalist. They usually come up with this question or some version thereof of: "How does your journalism background help or hinder your writing as a novelist?"

To give you some background information, I worked as a news writer for The Associated Press, among other entities, for a while. What did that experience teach me as a writer? To write fast, to see writing as a job with deadlines, and to assume that I would have to do research. Most importantly, it taught me that I can learn just about anything I need to know well enough to write an intelligent story about it.

... Which is why I always find it so odd, but interesting, when people tell writers to stick with "what they know."

This is not to say that I don't find it good advice. It's fine advice, but when taken from a different angle. Yes, write what you know. But don't stop there. If you don't know something, then find out about it. It's only when you feel that you "know" a subject that you'll feel comfortable writing about it.

So, yes, write what you know -- but don't let not knowing stop you from writing about something. Take initiative. Learn.

(Appropos: After finishing this post, I decided to catch up on my blog reading. While perusing agent Janet Reid's site, I found an entry called "Make MORE Mistakes, Not Fewer." It contained this sage advice:

5. Write what you don't know. I recently attended a panel sponsored by the New York Chapter of Mystery Writers of America, and it was interesting to me that five of the six authors had created a protagonist in their own image. That's all well and good, but I'm much more interested in the people I don't see every day. The one author who mentioned her protagonist was a Pakistani terrorist was the author I went out and bought the next day.
Also, I was reading an essay by author Laura Lippman. She touches on this very point to. Make sure you listen to the conversation with her, too.)

Friday, August 07, 2009

Past or Present Tense?
By Persia Walker

Most writers are trained, consciously or subconsciously, to write in the past tense, yours truly being one of them. But there are others who go for the present, who find it the better and more natural mode of expression. I've always wondered about them.

I've always written in and preferred to read novels written in the past tense. Stories written in the present tense have somehow always struck me as slow, ponderous, and even sometimes pretentious. All of this, of course, is highly subjective, and could be simply a matter of habit.

The other day, for example, I wrote an email to a friend, describing the plot of my new "bestseller." I automatically switched to the present tense. (Synopses are, for whatever reason, usually written in the present tense.) Not to be immodest, but I managed to convey drama and urgency in this less than brief email -- all the while using the present tense, the supposedly slow and ponderous present tense.

Hmm, I wondered. Why should the present tense be fast-paced and gripping in a synopsis, but slow in a novel? Was it all a matter of perception?

When writing, I tend to pepper my manuscript with notes. These notes are invariably written in the present tense. By the time I review these notes, weeks later, I've forgotten that I've written them. They strike me with their freshness -- and their present tense-ness. Written while in the grasp of some inspiring thought, these notes are often taut mini-scenes. My usual practice has been to simply rewrite them in the past tense and flesh them out a bit. Sometimes, however, I've felt that the scenes have lost something in the recasting. And sometimes, I've been strongly tempted to leave them just as they are, in the ponderous present tense I so otherwise eschew.

Yesterday, I dug out a battered copy of Dean Koontz's book Intensity. I wanted to see how Koontz handled a scene in which the protagonist confronts the sadistic killer holding a teenage girl in his basement. I also wanted to see the chapters in which Koontz probes the killer's mind. I remembered that he used multiple points of view, using one chapter to reflect the killer's thoughts and the next to express the protagonist's. What I didn't remember was that Koontz used the present tense for those chapters given to the killer and the usual past tense for those given to the heroine.

The contrast was jolting. It was uncomfortable, but effective. Time slowed and I was transported into the killer's mind. I felt as though I'd entered a time warp, as though I were floating in evil miasma. The change in tenses not only showed, but made me feel, how the killer existed in his own world, a place where time -- and ethics -- as the rest of us know it, did not apply.

If the present tense chapters underscored the killer's mind-bending insanity, then the past tense ones, where the story clipped right along, underscored the heroine's strong, if terrified, sense of sanity.

Should I attempt the same technique, I wondered? Why not? Maybe it was time I became a little inventive, a little more flexible. I couldn't see myself writing the entire book in present tense, but chapters here and there, for sure. Especially chapters that explored the killer's mind.

I decided to go for it. I would use a mixed bag of tenses. I would actually write in -- gasp -- the present tense.

The manuscript is still in its early stages, still subject to major changes. We'll see how it goes.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

In the News
By Angela Henry

Check out Walter Mosley's essay in Newsweek about why Americans are obsessed with crime.

John Ridley remembers Chester Himes in the Huffington Post.

Stephen Carter likes to keep his readers guessing in this Q & A for USA Today.

Attica Locke discusses her new thriller Black Water Rising.

Sleep Don't Come Easy is MystNoir's featured title for August.

Kyra Davis will be having a signing/chocolate tasting at Cocoa Bella Chocolates in San Francisco on Saturday August 8th. And you still have time to enter Kyra's contest to win a trip to San Francisco.


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