To Attribute or Not to Attribute

I want to share a little secret with you. Along with a healthy obsession with science and the Cosmos, if there’s one thing Carl Sagan was passionate about it was his Baloney Detector kit. But if it was two things, it was beta reading his friend’s manuscripts and discovering they didn’t know what the bleep they were doing when it came to attribution.*

What is attribution? The most common way we see this done in writing is with said. There are other ways to do it: replied, growled, retorted, hollered, yelled, screamed, etc. etc. etc.

And there are plenty of ways not to do it. So for the sake of all the beta readers, editors, agents, peeps out there who want to stab their eyes out rather than read wrong attribution one more time, I present to you.

attribution jae scribbles

I think the best way to do this is using examples. And since Man of Steel is coming out this month, we’ll do it Supes style. Ready, set, up, up and away!

EXAMPLES

Once upon a time there was a man named Clark Kent, and he had a secret. “I’ve just let my good pal Carl Sagan beta read my manuscript, and boy did he have a lot of feedback”, Clark said.

WRONG!

The correct way to attribute this would be: “…boy did he have a lot of feedback,” Clark said. When putting within quotes a sentence that is followed by attribution that would normally end in a period, replace that period with a comma within the quotes and stick the attribution on the outside of the quotes.

“That is correct,” he said.

“But you haven’t identified who said it,” I added.

“I thought that much was obvious. It’s me Clark,” he continued.

Get the point?

But don’t use a comma if it isn’t attribution following. Like so:

“Know what song I really hate? That Five For Fighting Superman song. It makes me sound like a cry-baby wimp,” Superman crushed the CD. <–more on this below, but use a period in this situation where the comma was.

KEEP ‘EM ALL INSIDE

But what about question marks, exclamation points, ellipses and em dashes? How do we attribute them?

“Good question,” said Clark. “Fooled you! That statement wasn’t actually a question, but sometimes writers accidentally write it with a question mark.”

“Then how do you do it?” I asked.

“Exactly like you just did. Well done!”

Question marks and exclamation marks alike remain inside the quotes, just like a comma would. There’s no need for any of this stuff:

“But what about this?”, he asked, adding another comma for good measure.

“You don’t need a comma after the quotes. It’s wrong!” I cried.

IF YOUR MOUTH ISN’T DOING IT, IT’S NOT ATTRIBUTION

This one I’ve seen a lot more lately all over the place, and I must protest. Please, please, please don’t do this anymore. You’ll make all your peeps super happy and agents won’t auto-reject you anymore (Note: This only works if this was the only reason they were auto-rejecting you.)

Superman wanted to catch a flick, so he flew over to the theater and hovered just outside of it. Using his x-ray vision and super hearing, he just watched the movie outside. “It’s not like there are any laws against this,” he hovered close to the wall.

WRONG!

See what happened here? Sometimes I think writers are trying to marry action with dialogue that should never be joined together like that in the first place. You can’t hover your speech. And action is NOT attribution, unless it includes something that you can do with the mouth, like gasping, laughing, yelling, etc.

But it can get tricksy. There are things you can do with your mouth that don’t work to attribution either, such as:

“This is a really interesting post,” she smiled. <–Okay, but it’s not really a smile that did the work of the words. Even if you’re saying it while smiling, it’s better to write it in that way. It could be: she said, smiling. Or maybe she was laughing, so you can just go straight to: she laughed. But more often than not, it’s better to leave the attribution simple and save the action for later.

SPEAKING OF ACTION

Sometimes we attribute when it’s not even necessary. And sometimes we over-attribute. If it’s perfectly clear who is doing the talking, save yourself the extra words and don’t attribute. What do I mean?

Superman punched Zod in the face. “How do you like them apples now? Huh, Zod?”

No said necessary when it’s coupled together on the same line. Plus you have Supes saying Zod’s name, which makes it even clearer it isn’t Zod speaking. And if it’s just the two of them in this scene, it’s even more obvious.

Let’s say you’ve been doing a back and forth between characters.

“Gee, Mr. Kent, I don’t know how to take photos,” Jimmy said.

Clark clenched his fists. “But you’re the newspaper’s photographer. That is your job isn’t it?”

Jimmy looked down at his shoes, a tear trickling down his cheek. “I just needed a job.”

Sometimes you need attribution, but when you’ve established a pattern, especially coupled with action, you can leave the attribution off. And you should.

But one more thing. Don’t do stuff like this:

“I don’t know, is red and blue too ostentatious?” Superman asked. He looked at Lois. “I mean, Batman does all black and he looks so cool,” he continued. <–You’ve attributed twice in the same sentence. We already know it’s Supes talking. No need to clutter it up with more attribution.

Or this:

“Are you kidding?” Lois stood, knocking her chair over.

“Is it too ostentacious?”

Superman looked out the window. Red and blue were his colors—his own kind of awesome.

Did the ostentatious line belong to Supes or Lois? If it’s Lois’ line, it should be a part of the same paragraph. If it’s Supes’ it should be with his paragraph. Otherwise it’s confusing. While it’s true that with more lines we might be able to infer whose line it was, but why not make it easier on your readers in the first place?

LAST THINGS

When attribution comes at the end, if it’s a pronoun, it will ALWAYS be lower case. So do this:

“Truth, justice, and the American way,” he said.

Not this:

“I’m thinking of starting a Justice League,” He explained.

*****

Okay, now hopefully we can all go forth and rid our manuscripts of attribution error. That’s one small step in editing, one giant leap toward a publishing contract!

Does wrong attribution bother you? Or are you an attribution culprit? Learn anything new? Anything I forgot that you would like to add?

*Note: Okay, maybe that’s not 100% accurate. Who knows whether or not Carl had time to beta-read. But you can bet if he did, he’d be pissed about bad attribution.

One last note. I didn’t know how I felt about Man of Steel, being highly disappointed by Superman Returns, but after I saw this trailer, my doubts faded. I can’t wait for it to come out. Unfortunately I’ll be out of town on premiere weekend (in San Fran where they charge 3 arms and 7 legs for a movie), so I’ll be a little later getting to watching it. 😦 (This trailer almost made me cry. Almost.) Let’s do ourselves a favor and keep our fingers crossed this is the Superman movie we’ve been waiting for.

 

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The Writing Game

I’ve been working steadily on polishing my WIP Shade for probably two years now, with breaks in between for other projects. First it was having a friend who edits professionally go through it with me and changing it as I learned. Then it was doing a major rewrite after a conference. And then again with Pitch Wars.

I got to the point where I felt pretty confident about editing—as far as process goes. But that’s when I started to notice a shift in writing. When it came to starting brand new—and I’m talking a project you’re not sprucing up, I mean 100% scratch—it was hard to switch over from editing mode. Part of me felt like I had to edit as I went along. And I’m not discounting that, but I do think it can hinder creativity.

WRITING PHASES

If you’ve been in this game long enough, you’ve been through different writing phases. For me I see these stages as plotting, creating, and editing. There are complexities within those stages, but I think it’s sufficient enough to cover the areas of writing with these phases. You can be in all three at one time, but my philosophy is you’ll likely be in one of them more than another at different times while you create story.

And these stages don’t necessarily occur in that order. You might be creating, then decide it’s time for some plotting, and then go on to editing. There’s no wrong or right way when it comes to process, except to say do it right for you.

PLOTTING

This is the stage where ideas are knocking down your door. Maybe you can’t even sleep at night because ideas are bothering you so much. Scenes are vivid in your mind. You might take to outlining, if you’re a plotter like me. You may also do some research to help the plotting along in your mind. Perhaps you gather photographs or other things that remind you of the story bouncing around in your head.

Often I have to outline just so I can get some peace. It seems like during this stage it’s hard to stay focused on conversations. Sometimes books, too, are difficult to read because the ideas are flowing.

The upside is you’re on top of the world. You can’t stop creating and you hope you can somehow capture all of that wondrous creativity before you. For me, it’s like that scene in Tangled where they’re surrounded by sky lanterns. How can you possible focus on anything else when you’re surrounded by all of that?

tangled sky lanternsLife is good and you’ve got creativity flowing.

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Win the War? Wait, There’s More!

editingseries

So let’s look over everything we’ve accomplished in the series so far:

  • Proper manuscript formatting is important.
  • Let your manuscript get cold before diving into major editing.
  • Read aloud to edit, read backward, switch fonts—change it up so you can see the errors.
  • Word economize!
  • Let other people read it. Friends, family, beta readers, writers groups, conferences. Get as much feedback as you can.
  • Get thick skin. Respond with dignity and grace to feedback.
  • You’ll probably have to rewrite. Accept that as part of the process.
  • Get some cred by entering contests. Also get some professional feedback this way.
  • When it’s time, consider working with an editor—especially if you’re self-publishing.

It always kills me when published authors say, “Hey, I get paid to make stuff up.” As though that’s all that goes into it. I guess they’re smiling at what they get to do for a living. But make no mistake, as I’m certain those of you who’ve been through this process already, writing is hard work. It’s some of the hardest work you can do. It’s an emotional rollercoaster ride of chaos. It’s probably like giving birth and then raising the kid to maturity. There will be moments of joy and moments of pure hell. But in the end, it’s worth it.

WHAT NOW?

Suppose you’ve done all this and then some. Now what? Well, if you’ve really been through tons of drafts and had multiple people look at it, it’s time to get this thing published.

Self-pub. If you’re self-publishing, it’s time to study other self-published authors and see how they became successful. It’s also time to learn all you can about marketing your book to bring it the most success possible. It’s going to take a ton of work, so please don’t think uploading a novel to Amazon will score you instant success. You’ll have to get the word out. But plenty have done it and been successful, so learn from them.

Traditional. For those sticking to the traditional route. Now comes the fun bit we call querying.

Oh, Luke! How’d you get in here?

Anyway, if you thought all this stuff was hard, wait until you get into querying. It’s not unlike novel editing, only more intense because you have to be clever on one page instead of several.

But there are places that can help you out. Visit Janet Reid’s Query Shark blog to see the good, the bad, and the ugly—often the ugly. Learn what not to do so you do it right in your own.

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Going Pro: Creds & Eds

Welcome to the sixth post in the How to Edit Your Novel series. Now that you’ve put your novel through the ringer, and likely gone through rewrites, it’s time to look at a few options: contests, conferences, and editors.

CONTESTS

books clip artNovels. While entering novel contests can be good exposure for your book, take caution in which contests you enter. Some may take exclusive publishing rights (like Amazon’s recent break through novel contest). Be certain you know what you’re getting into before you enter.

The contests I hope you’ll seek in particular are critique or feedback based contests. Even if it’s only the first few hundred words or first two chapters. For example, awhile back I won a first chapter critique from Aimee Salter. Her feedback was immensely helpful, and it’s something she does professionally.

I know I keep mentioning Pitch Wars, but I got a lot of great feedback from it too, especially from my mentor Marieke. And recently I entered the Cupid’s Literary Connection contest. I didn’t win, but I got helpful feedback there too–especially on my query. Feedback can be just as valuable as a win. Plus you can see how your novel stacks up among the works of your peers.

Short Stories. Whenever you need a break from the novel, or need to put it in cold storage, it’s the perfect opportunity to write something else–flash fiction, short stories, novellas, etc. This is where the creds part comes in. Winning a contest where your work is published in something gives you credentials for your query letter. It’s no guarantee, obviously, but anything you can do to stand out in the submission pile and catch an agent’s eye is worth the effort.

Even if you plan to self-pub, never hurts to be able to say “winner of the…” whether on your book or in your bio. You want to catch that reader’s eye.

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Edit Wars: Rewrites Strike Back

star wars meme editingWelcome to the fifth post in the How to Edit Your Novel series. Let’s see… At this point you’ve had beta readers, you’ve edited, and then the realization hits. This thing needs improvement. Not just typo fixes and quick word re-arranging. I mean substantial restructuring!

NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

Seriously, that’s how it can feel sometimes. What about all that work I’ve already done? I’ve already spent months/years on this thing! Ugh, I want to be published yesterday. Etc. Etc.

But the thing is, how dedicated are you to your story? Are you willing to do whatever it takes to make it the best it can be? Really?

I remember coming back from a conference totally deflated. I’d been through a Donald Maass workshop, and I knew my novel needed work—a lot of work. Could I really go through all that? Did I really want to? It took me a few weeks of mulling things over, but I decided it had to be done. So I spent the summer rewriting.

And you know what? I had a much better story. Much better.

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Don’t Fear the Feedback

Just change the word reaper to feedback and let that play as a soundtrack for you mind. Don’t Fear the Feedback—the fourth installment of the How to Edit Your Novel series.

TAKING FEEDBACK

closetYou may get your feedback face to face or you may get it in an email, but the most important thing when receiving feedback is to receive it with dignity and grace. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with it. Whoever is telling you what they think is wrong with your story took the time to read the thing. Even if you think they are 100% wrong (unlikely) they deserve your thanks for making the effort.

So at the very least, I want you to memorize this phrase: Thank you for your feedback. You’ve given me a lot to think about.

Your first reaction may be to explain why you wrote it the way you did. Don’t. You may feel like you need to defend your work. Don’t. You may even be inclined to tell them why they don’t know what they’re talking about. Definitely don’t.

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Beta Read, Time to Bleed

Welcome to the third part in my How to Edit Your Novel series, Beta Read, Time to Bleed. This is where the editing stakes get high. Why? Because you’re about to let other people read your manuscript. Some are going to tell you how much they loved it. Others are going to send it back to you with enough red marks for your book to need a blood transplant. But it’s a necessary part of the process.

If this is your first time letting anyone read your book, start with a friend or family member you trust. Typically they will be far kinder to you and your book than they should, but have them look for typos and things that didn’t make sense. That way you can have those parts all polished up when you’re ready to take the plunge.

jae scribbles diving

WRITERS GROUPS

Odds are, wherever you live, there’s a writers group you can attend. They probably will only go over a few pages at a time, but there’s a lot you can learn from these people. Some of them may be published, whether in magazines or that they have books out, but I’ve found my group to be especially helpful in offering feedback and giving me suggestions to think about.

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