Monthly Archives: September 2010

Band-aids Or Surgery

Over at Speculative Faith, a team blog pertaining to a Christian perspective of speculative fiction, one of our authors is discussing what a writer can learn from bad books. In Part 3 (see also Part 1 and Part 2), his latest article, he focuses first on authors filling dialogue with exposition, but then he moves on to using repetitive actions and verbal responses.

In other words, all the characters are randomly standing up or sitting down or exclaiming just like every other character.

One suggestion to fix this problem is to do a word search and catch all those repetitions. Not a bad start—sort of like first aid. But I suggest the word search might better be considered triage—a method to spot the critical problems that need major action at once.

But what action? Isn’t the problem repetition? I don’t think so. I believe the real problem is that the author doesn’t know her characters well enough.

Real people don’t all stand when they’re restless and stare out the window. Some may, but not all. So if three characters in a novel all react in this way, the “fix” is more than looking for a way to change up so they aren’t all doing the same thing.

The real need is to know which characters are type A and which are passive aggressive, which hold their feelings in their clenched fists and which lash out by kicking furniture.

In other words, an author has to individuate his characters—see each as a real person with distinct ways of looking at life and handling stress. Then taking into consideration the character’s proclivities, he needs to have him act and react accordingly.

Recently I had to do major surgery in one of my chapters. I thought one of my secondary characters needed more internal conflict, so I gave him a prideful attitude in a certain situation and had him make a serious mistake because of it. The problem was, my secondary character didn’t have a prideful attitude. That was the main character’s issue. I’d slipped into a comfortable conflict that I’d been dealing with in other scenes, but it didn’t fit this character and had to go.

Surgery is not pleasant. But band-aides only serve as cosmetic fixes. The best way of tackling repetitive character actions is to do the hard work of getting to know each character inside out. When that happens, it’s unlikely an author would make the mistake of giving a Gandolf and a Miss Marple the same kind of action or reaction.


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Filed under Characters

New Chicago Rules

The Chicago Manual of Style, used widely by fiction writers and editors and by many working with non-fiction, recently came out with their newest edition—number sixteen.

The hardback guide isn’t cheap, though Amazon has reduced the price to something more manageable. However, an alternative to buying the book might be to access the online edition. The yearly individual subscription fee is still cheaper than the incredible Amazon discount (but then you won’t own the book).

As part of the freebies offered at the CMoS web site is a list of the most significant changes that occur in the sixteenth edition. Some affect authors preparing a manuscript for publication (others pertain more to Internet writing, magazine writing, or scholarly journals), so I plan to review those over the next few posts.

Today I’ll address punctuation changes.

1. Punctuation after a title. Most titles don’t contain end punctuation, but when a question mark or exclamation point comes at the end of a title, CMoS, edition sixteen, says essentially to ignore it and put whatever other punctuation the sentence requires in addition to the end mark contained in the title.

    Previously: His book, Are You Sure? was on the best-seller list for a month.

    Change: His book, Are You Sure?, was on the best-seller list for a month.

2. The use of the apostrophe in a “specialty plural.” I’m terming the plural of a word or phrase in quotation marks a “specialty plural.” The old rule said to use an apostrophe and add s to make such words or phrases plural. The new rule does away with the apostrophe.

    Previously: How many “specialty plurals” did she use?

    Change: How many “specialty plurals” did she use?

3. The use of an apostrophe when forming a possessive of a name ending in s though it is not pronounced. The changed rule says to form the possessive in the same way that possessives for other singular nouns are formed—by adding an apostrophe and s.

    Previously: Albert Camus’ novels expressed his philosophical views. (This punctuation was an option).

    Change: Albert Camus‘s novels expressed his philosophical views.

4. The use of an apostrophe when forming a possessive of a name ending with an “eez” sound. The rule change says to add an apostrophe and s in the usual way.

    Previously: Xerxes’ reputation preceded him.

    Change: Xerxes‘s reputation preceded him.

5. The use of a hyphen in a color compound before a noun. Like other compound adjectives, color words must now be hyphenated.

    Previously: The emerald green water was cool and inviting.

    Change: The emeraldgreen water was cool and inviting.

There are a couple specialty punctuation changes, too, but these are the ones a novelist or an author of commercial non-fiction will most likely need.


Filed under Punctuation, Resources, Writing Rules