SMC: Revision and Grammar Class

Next up at the Storymakers Conference for me came the master class with Annette Lyon, a professional editor, on Revision and Grammar. I’m going to start this off by saying her class was extremely helpful and her book is available on Amazon for $1.50 (Kindle Version). I picked it up myself. A reference guide like this for so inexpensive is worth it.

I’m going to let you in on a secret Annette revealed during this class. Yes, publishing houses have editors. BUT—and this is a big butthey will pass on novels that are too ridden with grammatical errors. Let me say that one more time:

They will pass on novels that are too ridden with grammatical errors.

Editing books costs money, especially if they’re spending a lot of time fixing things that the author should have fixed. Now, yes, we’re all still going to have typos in our manuscripts. But knowing that grammar is a factor in making or breaking your book’s future, it should be supremely important to make it as flaw-free as possible. It shows professionalism on our part. Isn’t $1.50 worth all that?

Okay, enough book talk. Let’s get into the class.

IN THE BEGINNING

After that first draft you should always do a couple of personal read-throughs. Polish it as much as possible so when you hand it over to beta readers they’re focused on things you could really use help with, not mistakes you could have corrected yourself.

And definitely, 100% get a beta-reader (also called critique partner). They will see things you don’t because they’re not as close to the story as you are. Join a local writing group, meet other writers (via blogging or conferences), but find people you know will give you an honest critique. (Aka, your mom probably doesn’t count, although friends and family can be helpful before passing your novel along to beta readers.)

TEST YOUR SCENES

Apply the one-sentence test to your scene. Can you describe the scene in one-sentence? Is there action in the scene? Is there conflict? Make sure that something is happening internally as well as externally.

How many characters are on stage? Typically scenes will occur between two major players or it can get confusing for readers (although this is not necessarily a limit to two). Make sure you don’t overload readers with too many players in a scene.

TELLING VS. SHOWING

JAE NOTE: This is a term we throw around a lot, but sometimes it doesn’t get explained as well as it could be. We tend to do a lot more telling in early drafts and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes it works as a placeholder that you must fix in later drafts. But that’s the thing, it must be fixed. To give an example:

TELLING: She was scared to jump off the high-dive.

SHOWING: Her whole body quivered as she gripped the railing, forcing herself forward.

Instead of saying ‘scared’ show us what scared looks like. How do you know someone is scared? What are the visual clues? Is she trembling, breathing hard, dizzy? Does she stumble? Etc. Etc. This is what is meant by telling vs. showing. This also applies to telling us about events that happened to the character, rather than throwing us into the scene. Okay, back to notes.

It’s important not to tell, but don’t double it up. We see a lot of telling coupled with showing. For example: She was so happy + (all the showing). Just skip straight to the showing.

Use strong nouns, strong adjectives, but not strings of them. Ex: The gargantuan, black, rusty, old car. Too many dilutes. Also use specificity. Use Dodge Dart instead of car. (Although I’m not sure where copyright issues comes into play here). Knowing it’s a Dodge Dart vs. a Lamborghini gives us a lot more info about it than “car.” Or strut vs. walk shows us a lot more about how they did the action rather than just that the action happened.

DEADWOOD AND REPETITION

Editors and readers get really annoyed if your characters have looked 13 times in the last few pages. There are better words to express the same action.

Also, cut out the deadwood. Examples:

  • in order to > to
  • due to the fact that > because
  • a long period of time > awhile OR a long time
  • he nodded silently > (well, duh, silently is unnecessary)
  • he knew that > (Often you don’t need that. Unless it’s unclear without it, cut it. In fact, do a search and destroy for that.)
  • would read > read (80-90% of the time you don’t need would)

Even more examples:

  • several of the students > several students
  • all of the things she told them > everything she told them
  • it’s a true fact that > (facts are true, that’s why they’re facts, no true necessary)
  • her hair hung down > (unless they’re in space, readers will assume gravity is working properly and down isn’t needed)
  • they stood up/sat down > (again obvious in most worlds, don’t need up/down)

And when it comes to sensory moments in a scene:

  • sniffed with his nose > (What else is he sniffing with?)
  • nodded his head > (Does he nod with is feet?)
  • blinked his eyes, tasted in her mouth, squinted her eyes, etc.

Don’t go overboard with words and speeches if they’re unnecessary. One of her favorite scenes is in The Fugitive when Harrison Ford is in the water tunnel with Tommy Lee Jones. Harrison says, “I didn’t kill my wife.” Originally there was a long speech Tommy was supposed to give, but he chucked it, saying sometimes writers overwrite things and we ended up with the line, “I don’t care” which tells us everything the speech would have told us in three words. He’s just a guy doing his job—the innocence doesn’t matter to him.

MORE TIPS

Watch your adverbs. Use the 90% rule, which is 90% of adverbs should be eliminated. Watch your dialogue tags too. Try and write your scenes and dialogue in a way that you don’t need tags hardly at all.

EXAMPLE: Bob reached for his gun. “Let’s go kill some zombies,” he said. (But since the sentence before told us it was Bob and the dialogue is right next to it, we’ll assume it was Bob and we don’t need the tag.)

Search and destroy was. That’s not to say you can’t ever use was, but try and write it so there’s no more than two cases of was per page.

SPEECH ACTS

Although our speech may indicate something completely different than what we’re saying, we still need to punctuate it the way grammar dictates or it’s confusing.

Her example: Her daughter saw her eating chocolate and said, “Mmmm, chocolate.” What she meant was, “Can I have some chocolate?” So even though the meaning is a question, it doesn’t mean we write it with a question mark.

More examples:

  • I don’t know how you did that? < Wrong. A period is what you need here.
  • What is your opinion on that. <Wrong. Asking a question, so it needs a question mark.

When it comes to exclamation points she says NO MORE than a 1/2 dozen in the entire novel. And certainly not more than one, like this!!! AND DON’T PUT THINGS ALL IN CAPS EITHER! Even in a fight, don’t give every single sentence an exclamation point. The purpose is an abrupt change, but if every sentence has one then after awhile it becomes normal again.

INTERMISSION

Okay peeps, I didn’t realize how many notes I took during this class, so we’re going to continue with Part 2 tomorrow. Great tips right? Have you gone and spent your $1.50 yet?

Anything you would add to the advice so far? Learn anything knew?

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9 thoughts on “SMC: Revision and Grammar Class

  1. This sounds like it would have been a good workshop for me to attend…I never realized how many “deadwood” words I use until one of my CPs pointed it out. I’m guilty of almost all of them, “she blinked her eyes,” “nodded her head,” “sat down,” etc. Embarrassing but true…I like to think I’m getting better at seeing them and cutting them out, but it’s been a slow process.

    Looking forward to part 2!

    p.s. I still remember the whole exclamation mark thing from Backspace – that was one of the critiques we got on our first 2 pages. Ever since then I’ve been much more sparing with them. 🙂

  2. Interesting post, Jae! It’s tough to get the right balance between telling vs. showing. Some would say we shouldn’t ever “tell,” but in my opinion, too much descriptive “showing” can be too wordy, and I find myself thinking, “get to the point already!”

    • I agree. I think it’s a balance of telling to be lazy vs. telling for efficiency or clarity. But glad to hear you say it all the same. 🙂

  3. I’ve never tried the one-sentence test, but I’m gonna give it a go. It would be interesting to see 27 sentences telling my story.
    I’m currently doing redundancy and deadwood searches through my novel. It takes so long! I can’t wait ’til my exams are over and I can spend a whole day editing.
    Yes to the speech acts paragraphs. It’s one thing that I’ve always been picky about, especially the question mark when it’s not actually a question. Sure, people’s voices could be raised in a question, but it’s not grammatically correct. What really annoys me is the “I was wondering whether x?” one.
    One of the things I’ve never liked about the Harry Potter books was that Rowling put her yelling in caps. When I read it, it felt like the book, rather than the character, was screaming at me.
    😀

    • It just gets wearisome after awhile, doesn’t it? I’d forgotten about Rowling doing that. Interesting point though, that the book is screaming at you. Most important rule of writing: don’t do anything to remind the reader they’re reading a book.

      • I might be ’cause I get like that with a lot of caps. My inner monologue just…explodes when I see caps. It doesn’t particularly feel in character. You know? …That doesn’t really explain what I meant 😛

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