writers' advice weblog

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Formatting/Punctuation/Grammar

re: The Best Way to Signal a Scene Break?

in Formatting/Punctuation/Grammar by

Dear Editor…

A manuscript formatting question for you: Is there a standard way to indicate a space between scenes so that readers know the space is intentional? I’ve seen * and # used. Is one better than the other?

Thanks,
CC

Dear CC…

There’s no industry preference regarding ornaments that signal scene breaks. Pick one that makes you happy. That said, I recommend something understated so you don’t distract editors from your fab content. Plus, cutsey things like the Wingdings 2 scissors image can create a subtle impression of unprofessionalism. No matter your specific choice, do use something. Often, manuscripts I receive for editing lack these visual signals, and in almost every case I experience at least one moment of confusion when a scene break lands at the bottom of a page. That might not have been the placement of the break when the author sent me the document, but my editing lengthens and shortens chapters unpredictably. Don’t do that to your future editor. Insert ornaments while you draft as a matter of course.

Happy writing!
The Editor

re: How Do I Deal with Accents in Dialogue?

in Formatting/Punctuation/Grammar/Narrative Voice by

Dear Editor….

I’d love to get your opinion on how to show accents. I have a lot of French and Spanish speakers in my realistic Young Adult story and I’m struggling with how to show that on the page. I felt good about playing with an accent in a short scene, but this book’s characters are all European except for the protagonist and her family, so it’s becoming a pain to sort out how to represent their nationalities in dialogue.

Sincerely,
Hearing Things

Dear Hearing Things…

In general I feel written accents are visually distracting and thus detract from the reading experience rather than inject fun. Instead, try using wrong word choices, odd grammar and sentence structure, sprinkled-in foreign words, and regional/cultural idioms. But what if only their pronunciation of English is “off”? I like how Stephanie Perkins handles this in Anna and the French Kiss, with an American in a French boarding school. She doesn’t write accents even though it’s clear characters have accents. The English narrator thinks Please be in English. Please be in English. Please be in English while waiting for a Frenchman to reply. A Brit says “arse” for “ass.” A Frenchman translates on-the-fly: “There are loads of first-run theatres, but even more—what do you call them?—revival houses.” In Anna, character nationalities are represented in dialogue but readers aren’t distracted from the content or jarred out of the “zone.”

Happy writing!
The Editor

re: Do I Indent the First Paragraph of a New Scene?

in Formatting/Punctuation/Grammar by

 Dear Editor…

After a scene break, should I start the first paragraph of the new scene flush left, or should I indent it just like any new paragraph?

Sincerely,
Oddly Obsessed with this Detail

Dear Oddly Obsessed…

There are plenty of industry standards for manuscript formatting. Deviations can distract agents and editors from your brilliant content, so it’s best to format as expected. This item, however, doesn’t require toeing any lines. Even among published books you’ll see both alternatives. So choose the style that feels and looks best for your story. For example, starting new scenes flush left might inject a subtle dramatic oomph that works for the story. Or, maybe you’ve got many different elements peppered within your narrative text, such as emails or handwritten letters, and the visual signal of a flush left first paragraph would help the manuscript’s readers better identify new scenes. Some writers simply like the consistency of indented paragraphs throughout a document. You have personal wiggle room with this item, so wiggle your person at will.

Happy writing!
The Editor

re: The Missing Comma in “Yes sir” Bugs Me

in Formatting/Punctuation/Grammar by

Dear Editor…

I have noticed in many books that are supposed to be “edited professionally” that writers aren’t putting commas in these instances: “Yes sir,” she said. And “I told you not to do that Anne,” John said. Shouldn’t there be a comma before “sir” and “Anne”? Why are so many people ignoring this basic 101 punctuation rule? Or am I wrong? I see it most from indie or smaller publishers. The funny thing is, the rest of those manuscripts are fine – no typos, other mistakes – except for that one rule, as if it’s been misused so much that some freelance editors have started to believe that’s the correct way.

Sincerely,
Wondering

Dear Wondering…

Sir unaccompanied by a comma can bug me, too—but there’s a reason we sometimes see that. Your examples are direct addresses, which the “rules” say are to be set off by commas: “I told you not to do that, Anne.” But the rule gets fuzzy when it comes to the word sir. It turns out yes sir can, in fact, go without a comma when it’s used almost as a single word, as in “Yes sir! I will.” This is covered in entry 5.47 of The Chicago Manual of Style (14th ed.), which most fiction publishers use. In a nod to the fuzziness of usage and punctuation, each publisher creates its own “house style guide” to codify its preferences. (Yes, the guides can be word-specific.) Copy editor sensibility then factors in. She may decide on “Yes sir,” she said to follow house style (she’ll have a guide for each house she works with), or she may sense “single word” usage, or she may want a clean look for the text itself. After all, “Yes, sir,” she said has a lot of punctuation for a sentence with so few words. Does punctuation fussiness serve that book? Good copy editors know the rules but also consider the flavor of each project.

Happy writing!
The Editor

re: Why Does My Action “Read Slow”?

in Formatting/Punctuation/Grammar/General fiction/Narrative Voice/Plot by

Dear Editor…

The feedback on my mystery manuscript was that it has lots of action but “reads slow.” The reader gave one bit of elaboration: “Some of the paragraphs ‘feel’ long even though they aren’t.” I’m not sure what to do with that. Suggestions?

Sincerely,
Confused

Dear Confused…

You might be overstuffing sentences to get it all in quickly. The action. The info. The setting. The revelations. This can lead to long, complex sentences with multiple actions, heavily modified nouns, interruptions, and copious commas, em-dashes, and parentheses. Example: “Digging my hand into my pocket, I ran to the huge, double-bolted, metal doors—just installed last week by my ultra-paranoid, hippie parents—hoping desperately that I could dig out the ancient bronze key in time.”  That might be fine amongst a variety of sentence lengths and styles (such as a direct statements or fragments). But sentence after sentence, page after page…. It’s a lot of work for a reader. Slow work. And it’s hard to pick out the most important action; everything has the same weight. Thus, dense text can feel flat. Increase sentence variety to create rhythmic ups/downs. Make some things stand out while others float in the background, creating depth. If a detail isn’t vital, ditch it. When using opening clauses, avoid repeatedly piling action upon action. Lastly, go easy on the adjectives. Inform, don’t bury.

Happy writing!
The Editor

re: Are Footnoted Illustration Notes the New Vogue?

in Formatting/Punctuation/Grammar/Picture Books/Submissions by

Dear Editor…

I know illustration notes should only be used when absolutely necessary in picture book manuscripts, but I do have a few manuscripts that need them. I’ve recently seen them noted as footnotes rather than italicized text between brackets. What do you think of this?

Sincerely,
Wendy

Dear Wendy…

I haven’t seen that, myself. That formatting sounds like it would interrupt the reading experience, forcing the editor or agent to stop reading the main text, drop down to the bottom of the page, and then go back up and find their place within the main text again. Such interruption is the same reason many people dislike footnotes in a published book. Some readers simply skip the footnotes altogether, or wait until they get to the bottom of the page to glance at them. I recommending sticking with industry standard, which is to set the illustration note within brackets alongside the pertinent line of text. Why risk distracting an editor with a formatting detail? Save your risk-taking for revolutionary story content or narrative styles. That kind of “different” wins you fans.

Happy writing!
The Editor

re: Does Paragraph Length Matter?

in Creative Process/Formatting/Punctuation/Grammar/General fiction by

Dear Editor…

Do paragraphs have to be the same size?

Sincerely,
Adele

Dear Reader…

Unless we’re talking about a deliberately stylized narrative or something text-booky or manual-like where paragraph uniformity can be an organizing tool, I recommend variety in your paragraph lengths. Your story’s rhythm is on the line. Pages full of uniform paragraph blocks can create a staccato feel that may wow at dramatic moments but overwhelm across an entire book. Variety relaxes readers, helping them sink past your words and into your story. Try to think of paragraphing not as a technical decision but as a rhythmic tool. Do you want the story to energize? Lay down a bunch of short paragraphs. Bam, bam, bam! Do you want it to calm down? Time for some long, rich paragraphs. Ahh…. Time to shake things up or reveal or shock your readers? Flow out a succession of long paragraphs then kick in good and hard with a single-sentence punch of a paragraph. Embrace the power of rhythmic storytelling and manipulate your story’s tone, tension, and impact.

Happy writing!
The Editor

re: Is Kindle Singles Right for My Middle Grade Mystery?

in Ebooks/Formatting/Punctuation/Grammar/Publishing Biz/Submissions/Teen/Middle Grade Fiction by

Dear Editor…

What do you think about selling a middle grade mystery on Kindle Singles? I’m not sure how one finds buyers after putting it on there. Also would an agent consider looking at it if it was on Kindle Singles?

Thanks,
M.G. Mystery Writer

Dear M.G. Mystery Writer…

The Kindle Singles program, which showcases 5,000- to 30,000-word ebooks, is a great way to distinguish writings that are less than novella length. Readers have expectations, and to get a slim book when you thought you bought a full novel can be frustrating. At the moment, KS guidelines exclude “children’s books”—yet KS pubbed bestselling R.J. Palacio’s WONDER-based short story. If KS won’t take your MG, you can publish it as a regular ebook, being clear about the length in your description and using a lower price point. Your concerns about discoverability are legit, as they are for any MG writer since COPPA limits our ability to engage young readers online. Your social media promo efforts will target parents, adult MG readers, teachers, and librarians to get them chin-wagging. Consider waiting to pub your short-length project until you have 2 or 3 titles; a series or body of work has a larger promo footprint. Self-pubbing it won’t affect agents’ decisions unless the ebook is poor quality.

Happy writing!
The Editor

re: How Do I Format the Line Spacing to Indicate a Mid-Scene Break?

in Formatting/Punctuation/Grammar by

Dear Editor…

The question I have relates to formatting. I can’t seem to find the standard for what I’m trying to do in my manuscript and would appreciate any suggestions you have on this. Here goes: I know how to format a scene break. But I have a few scenes where I play with line spacing within the scene. Basically, the effect I want is a blank line between paragraphs. How do I indicate (within a scene) that the line space is intentional? Then, would I indent the first paragraph after each line space or place it flush left like the first paragraph after a scene break?

Thanks,
Space Case

Dear Space Case…

This is more an issue of clarity than of rules. To make your intention totally clear, use the old favorite  ### to indicate all of your standard scene breaks. Where you want a special mid-scene line break, just leave the extra line space. I recommend not indenting the first sentence of the paragraph following that line space; I think this flush-left presentation will emphasize that the extra space is intentional. Lastly, just before the very first chapter in the manuscript, type this in italics surrounded by brackets: [In this manuscript, instances of extra line spacing between paragraphs are intentional to indicate mid-scene breaks.] That should make things plenty clear to an editor or agent reviewing the manuscript.

Happy Writing!
The Editor

re: Do I Capitalize “God” in Dialogue and Internal Thoughts?

in Dialogue/Formatting/Punctuation/Grammar by

Dear Editor…

When using the word God in a dialogue sentence or thought, like Oh my G** or G**d***it, must I capitalize it? In my faith I’m taught not to use the Lord’s name in vain, but using curse words is true to my character. I’ve seen it both ways and I feel better when I leave it lower case because it could mean any god not my God.

Thanks,
L.

Dear L….

The only rigid rule for capitalizing “God” in dialogue and thoughts is that you do so when using it as a pronoun: “Joe, God won’t like that.” Beyond that, you can let your character decide. Some characters say “Oh my god!” as a generic expression with no thought to religion at all. For them, lowercase works. They aren’t directly invoking God. For a character with strong religious beliefs, the word “God” almost certainly has religious association whenever it’s used, thus you’d capitalize it in her dialogue and thoughts—if she’d utter the name in vain at all. For her, “God damn it” would really be a plea to God on some level. For characters in the middle, “oh my god” is likely generic so lowercase works unless you just plain don’t like it, but you can avoid your discomfort or offense to readers by using the casual “oh gawd” or picking a different exclamation or curse. There are plenty! Or, how about just skipping the curse and using body language and prop interaction instead? A guy silently punching a wall can be richer than any curse word.

Happy writing!
The Editor

re: Can I Use a Symbol in My Title?

in Formatting/Punctuation/Grammar/Submissions by

Dear Editor…

The title of my current WIP is the name of a fictional corporation, followed by ™. I’m concerned that, in queries, this will look like I’m trying to protect my title from the agent or editor — which I know is a very unprofessional thing to do. How do I clearly communicate that the ™ is part of the title?

Thanks,
Darin

Dear Darin…

Using a symbol in the title could be an issue for your book long after query stage: How will people type the title into their search engines? How will the symbol translate in databases like Goodreads and Amazon, considering databases are notorious for converting non-letters to random symbols? Even simple apostrophes in titles can get warped in email subject lines for launch announcements, etc. Is the trademark symbol vital to understanding the concept of your book and thus worth the potential hiccups in online promotion and book listings? Consider leaving it out of the official title and using it only as a design element on the final book cover. Can you skip it during submission, at least? You can discuss its necessity with your editor and marketing team later. If it must stay in the official title through all stages, add an asterisked line to the ms cover page or somewhere in the query letter’s body text, such as: *Trademark symbol is part of official book title. That may raise eyebrows for being unusual, but it’s unlikely to sabotage the manuscript.

Happy writing!
The Editor

re: How Do I Format My Chapter Titles and Numbers?

in Formatting/Punctuation/Grammar by

Dear Editor…

How should I format chapter numbers and titles? Should there be a certain number of spaces before and after? I’d appreciate any insight you’d be willing to share.

Sincerely,
Myrna

Dear Myrna…

You can do your own thing since there aren’t “rules” for formatting chapter numbers and titles, but I advocate a conservative approach rather than going all flashbang with it. Your story is your star attraction, not your chapter titles. Use the same font as the rest of the manuscript to avoid distracting from the story, and set them at the top of a new page to echo the reading experience of a bound book. They’re most commonly centered, but flush left is comfortable. You can bold them for a tad bit of drama in breaking from one episode to the next without being too flashy. One line space before and after is the most common line-spacing treatment. Ultimately, let clarity and the natural flow of the entire manuscript be your guide.

Happy writing!
The Editor

Guest Editor Robin Cruise: “onto” versus “on to”

in Formatting/Punctuation/Grammar by

Dear Editor…

Which is right?

1) Jane stepped onto the patio.
2) Jane stepped on to the patio.

My net surfing tells me #1 is right, that if a person or thing is “upon” a concrete object, you can use “onto” and reserve “on to” for things non-concrete or metaphorical, like “Please move on to the next topic.” Is there a net site I could use as a reference?

Thanks so much,
All Mixed Up

Robin CruiseRobin Cruise has worked in various capacities in trade publishing for more than twenty years. Since launching Red Pencil Consulting in November 2011, she has collaborated directly with authors, illustrators, agents, editors, content developers, publishers, and other individuals/entrepreneurs/businesses. She is a skilled researcher, writer, editor, and project manager who helps create, shape, and deliver high-quality content for readers of all ages, both fiction and nonfiction for adults as well as children. Robin may be contacted directly at rcruise1@gmail.com.

Dear All Mixed Up…

I know and feel your pain! On, onto—such eensie words and yet sometimes such GINORMOUS pains in the heinie, right? Well, let’s just keep the way to go simple: With no hesitation whatsoever, I would advise Jane to step boldly onto the patio—and to hang on to her bonnet when she does so! In a nutshell, onto signals movement—and even though it’s a preposition, onto sort of feels/functions like an adverb. Meanwhile, on doesn’t signal motion but is often an adverb that’s part of the verbal phrase, as with hold on to or hang on to. And that’s precisely why Jane should hang on to her bonnet! And while I’m at it, I’d also advise Jane to avoid stepping in the muck—and to forget what’s-his-name if she’s just not that into him! ;>0

Because we’re in the Land of On . . . Keep in mind that it generally makes sense to use on rather than the stuffier upon unless there’s some condition afoot that warrants the latter, for example: The brilliant writer will be paid handsomely upon delivery of the final revised manuscript.

Robin Cruise
Red Pencil Consulting

re: What’s the Rule for Indenting First Paragraphs?

in Formatting/Punctuation/Grammar by

Dear Editor…

Is there a rule that says the first paragraph of a new chapter should NOT be indented? Or is the decision to indent or not indent the first paragraph solely a case-by-case design decision?

Thanks,
Kate

Dear Kate…

You get to do what you want with that indent. Setting the first line flush left for a chapter-opening paragraph (and after space breaks within the text as well) is the general “norm” when it comes to interior text design, but there’s no absolute hard-and-fast rule. My designer colleagues tell me it’s nice to have the freedom to play with this element—they’d put a big ol’ indent if that worked for a project’s design style—but you’ll almost never see examples of that because breaking from this norm can strike readers as awkward. Keep that in mind if you’re designing the interior for your own self-published project. If you’re just wondering how to format your manuscript for submission, go with the tried-and-true flush left treatment for those chapter and break openers. Definitely don’t submit manuscripts set in that blog-like style that has extra line spacing between paragraphs and all first lines flush left.

Happy writing!
The Editor

re: Making an Interruption FEEL Like an Interruption

in Dialogue/Formatting/Punctuation/Grammar by

Dear Editor…

My critique group has a debate going on about how to punctuate dialogue when the speaker is interrupted versus when they let their words trail off. Can you clarify the correct punctuation?

Sue

Dear Sue…

Last week’s presidential debate, tomorrow’s vice presidential debate, next week’s second presidential debate, your writing group’s punctuation debate . . . ‘tis the season for hashing out the big issues, isn’t it? And for writers, creating the perfect rhythm for your fictional conversations is a big issue. If you want a character’s words to trail off, use ellipses as I did above when I let my list of debates trail off. But for an interruption, the almighty em-dash can’t be beat. Think of that long line as a chop at the throat, a hand slicing through the air in a forceful cease-and-desist motion: “But I want—” “Enough. It’s not up for debate.” Did you feel that verbal karate chop? That’s a satisfying interruption.

Happy writing!
The Editor

Guest Editor Bobbi Katz re: Formatting a Poetry Collection Submission

in Formatting/Punctuation/Grammar/Guest Editors/Picture Books/Submissions by

Dear Editor…

My writing partner and I have a collection of poems we want to submit. What we can’t find anywhere is how to format the poems. Should we include a list of the poems in the order they are being presented? Should each poem have line or word counts at the top of the page? Should the pages have a header with the overall title and page numbers? Should each poem simply be presented with its own page number since they might be moved around by an editor? We can’t find any information anywhere to guide us.
Thanks,
Rosi

Dear Rosi…

I’ve done collections of my own poems and anthologies, plus I’ve been an editor. That said, my way of preparing a manuscript may not be to everyone’s liking. My system is to make life as easy as possible for the reader/editor.

After deciding on the order of the poems, I create a title page with, of course, the title in caps and the authors’ names and contact info on the lower right. Each poem should be typed on a separate sheet and be 1.5- or double-spaced. Once you’ve established a working order, number the pages in the lower right corner with a circle around them. If any of the poems has been previously published in an anthology or magazine, print the credit on the page. I usually use a different font and smaller type for that. Then I create a (tentative) table of contents page. In most of my books there is an order created by the subject of the poems. In my anthology Pocket Poems, for example, I used poems to create a day for an elementary child from waking up, getting dressed, going to school, etc., until bedtime. Sometimes just the opening and ending poems act like book ends. That’s the case with a collection of my own poems, A Rumpus of Rhymes: A Book of Noisy Poems. All the poems contain onomatopoeic words. I just tried to imagine which poems might go together very loosely by seasons ending with the palpable silence of a “Snow Scene.” Poets order each collection differently, of course. You’ll have to decide what’s best for your current project. These days I believe that editors receive so much material that the less they have to do to see the possibility of creating a book from a manuscript, the better your chances are. Do not staple the manuscript. A sturdy paperclip is best so that the editor can move the poems about easily. Include an SASE when you do a hardcopy submission via regular mail, but be sure to check the agency’s/publisher’s website for their submission guidelines, as they may prefer electronic submissions or have formatting/SASE preferences.

You and your partner have written a collection. I imagine that these are either poems you’ve worked on together or poems by you and poems by your partner. A brief cover letter to the editor is a must. In a few words explain the collaboration. You may mention that while a few of the poems have appeared elsewhere, you control all the rights, if indeed that is the case.

I wish you the best of luck in finding a home for the collection.

-Guest Editor Bobbi Katz

Bobbi Katz has written picture books, chapter books, and even a biography about her hero, Nelson Mandela, but she is best known for her lauded collections of poetry and rhyming books, such as A Rumpus of Rhymes: A Book of Noisy Poems, Once Around The Sun, Trailblazers: Poems of Exploration, Nothing But A Dog, The Monsterologist: A Memoir in Rhyme, We the People, Partner Poems for Building Literacy, Pocket Poems, and More Pocket Poems. Bobbi conducts poetry workshops for children, teachers, and librarians. Her classroom workshops make students and teachers comfortable with reading and writing poetry and discovering the joy of language. For more about Bobbi, visit her website www.bobbikatz.com.

 

Guest Editor Warren Lewis re: Format of Nursery Rhyme within a Play Script

in Formatting/Punctuation/Grammar/Guest Editors/Screenwriting by

Dear Editor…

I’m writing to check with you on the format of a nursery rhyme recited by a character within the format of a play script. Currently, I have the nursery rhyme indented five spaces from the remaining words. Is there a standard way to format this kind of element?

Thanks,
Leni

Dear Leni…

The convention is that the quotation should be in standard dialogue margins, separated by a line break and within quotation marks. I suggest, and use, italics as well. Performers (and directors and readers) will appreciate that it stands out a bit from the flow of dialogue, making it clear that they are quoting and helping them make appropriate choices.

Thanks for writing,
Guest Editor Warren Lewis

Warren Lewis’s credits as a screenwriter include Black Rain (Paramount) and The Thirteenth Warrior (Touchstone). He has worked on assignments for most of the major studios, including Sony, Warner Brothers, and Fox, with over thirty original or commissioned screenplays and numerous re-writes. Warren served an old-fashioned New York apprenticeship in film-making, working on film and commercial sets first as an apprentice and assistant film editor, then in production. He attended New York University and graduated from its film division. He’s worked on over 100 commercials and 15 feature films in various production capacities, including second and first assistant director and second unit director on films directed by, among others, Penelope Spheeris and John McTiernan. For more about Warren, visit screenplaystreet.com, the website of his consultancy for aspiring and accomplished screenwriters.

re: Are There “Musts” When It Comes to Formatting a Synopsis?

in Formatting/Punctuation/Grammar by

Dear Editor…

What format should the novel synopsis take? I’ve seen advice on CONTENT but not format – such as double-space? Margins? Is there an industry standard?

Many thanks!
Jeanne

Dear Jeanne…

Writers hear the admonition “double space your manuscript” so often that my answer to your question may feel as if I’m forcing you to rub a cat the wrong way: single space your synopsis. Yep, that’s the industry standard. Use a 12-point font that’s professional and legible, such as Times New Roman, and surround the text with one-inch margins. Limit your synopsis to three pages—although, if you can pull it off, two is best. The goal of a synopsis, after all, is to be informative without being overwhelming. Tuck your name, contact info, and project info into the upper left corner of the first page, type the word “Synopsis” in the top center, and then list your name, the title, and the page number in the upper right corner of subsequent pages. Above all, resist the urge to shrink your font size in order to squeeze your synopsis onto three pages. Reading three pages of single-spaced, 11-point copy can be painful. Cut content, not point size.

Happy writing!
The Editor

re: Writing Height in Dialogue

in Formatting/Punctuation/Grammar/General fiction by

Dear Editor…

How should we write height in a story when the height is either in dialogue or a thought? Verbally we often say someone is five four, leaving out the word foot, but should it be written correctly either as five-foot-four or 5’4″?

Thanks,
Sue

Dear Sue…

People speak in words rather than numerals. That’s why you wouldn’t type, “Dude, I called you 2 times!” into your fictional dialogue. Same thing goes for typing a measurement into dialogue. The height measurement in your example should be spelled out in this manner: “five-feet-four.” For a character with a more casual speaking style, “five-foot-four” or “five-four” will do the job nicely. Since internal thoughts are essentially unspoken dialogue, they get the spell-out treatment, too.

Happy writing!
The Editor

re: Should I Italicize Internal Dialogue in Close Third Person?

in Formatting/Punctuation/Grammar/Point of View by

Dear Editor…

In close third person, what are the best ways to handle internal dialog? Italics, “she thought” tags, or just let the reader figure it out?

Sincerely,
Stephanie

Dear Stephanie…

In close third person POV (also called third person limited) the story is told from the protagonist’s perspective but not in her direct words. “She entered the cafeteria, then froze. The place reeked of burnt Tater Tots and fryer grease. I’m so going to barf. She spun on her heel and left.” My italics make it clear that the brief change in the narrative is internal dialogue. Sure, readers could probably work that out because of the shift from “she” to “I”—but why make readers decipher anything when acceptable technical aid is available? YA fiction favors italics to make things easy on young readers. You’re more likely to find thought tags (“she thought”) in adult fiction, where italics are often considered visual distractions. Choose based on your style and your audience’s needs, but do choose something. Let readers focus on the story.

Happy writing!
The Editor

re: Which Tense Is Best for Synopses?

in Formatting/Punctuation/Grammar/Submissions by

Dear Editor…

What tense should be used when writing a synopsis?  Does it matter what tense is used in the manuscript?

Sincerely,

Mary

Dear Mary…

No matter which tense you use in your story, apply literary present tense to your synopsis. Literary present describes your story as if it were happening right now: “When Khalel’s secret is revealed, he assumes his night daemon shape and escapes into the darkness.” Feel free to inject a hint of your story’s narrative voice into your synopsis, but don’t get wonky with the tense. Sticking with this standard lets your prospective agent or editor focus the content instead of the form.

Happy writing!

The Editor

re: The Right Words Matter More Than the Right Word Count

in Formatting/Punctuation/Grammar/Teen/Middle Grade Fiction by

Dear Editor…

I am writing a YA novel, I think. (I guess it might be considered middle grade.) How many words are these novels usually? I’m past half way and mine is 14,000 words. Am I on the right track?

Sincerely,

Tina

Dear Tina…

You’re fine. MG fiction ranges between 25,000 and 45,000 words. But forget that for now. You need to focus on definitively identifying your audience. You must know your audience in order to write a story that successfully connects with them. Is your topic right for 9- to 12-year-olds? How about your narrative sensibility? That is, does the story express concerns that reflect a middle grader’s way of viewing the world? Kids that age are typically focused inward, struggling to find out who they are. They shouldn’t sound too self-aware by analyzing themselves or others. Let them judge and act quickly — and then face the fallout.

Happy writing!

The Editor

re: The Look of Lyrics

in Formatting/Punctuation/Grammar by

Dear Editor…

When you are writing prose, and showing that someone/group/radio is singing a song, how do you format the lyrics to the song? In quotation marks? Italics? Different margins?

Thanks,

Scott

Dear Scott…

You’re 3 for 3 with answering your own question. Yes, italicize the words being sung. Yes, surround the singing bits with quotation marks as you would any dialogue. And yes, if a couple of lines or more (perhaps entire verses) are being sung, then set off the passage from the rest of the narrative text with wider left and right margins (this is called an “extract”). Two of your paragraph tabs will make a nice margin depth. You can see this treatment in Curse of the Blue Tattoo, from L. A. Meyer’s spirited Bloody Jack Adventures series. That said, if your character is just singing a few words or a single line, ditch the special margins and just incorporate the italicized lyrics into the narrative as you would any short bit of dialogue, complete with beginning and ending quotation marks.

Happy writing!

The Editor

re: Formatting IM Exchanges in a Manuscript

in Formatting/Punctuation/Grammar by

Dear Editor…

I have a lot of text/IM conversations in my YA novel. Is there a way to distinguish this in my manuscript? How creative can I get?

Sincerely,
Anne

Dear Anne…

Your chief concern is distinguishing the IMing exchanges from regular dialogue and making sure readers can follow who is “speaking” at any given moment. Look inside Lauren Myracle’s TTYL to see how you can lay out the IM lines and the character names during an IMing exchange; it’s very clear in that novel. As for the graphics in TTYL, skip those for now. They’ll make your manuscript “gimmicky” to editors and agents. Leave that for a seasoned book designer when your book is being readied for production. In your ms, your creativity should be limited to picking an IMing font that is different from your narrative font but complementary, and perhaps using dark gray, black, and, if necessary, a complementary shade of blue to distinguish each speaker. You want clarity, not distraction.

Happy writing!

The Editor

re: Lie, Lay, and Other Grammar Issues in Dialogue

in Dialogue/Formatting/Punctuation/Grammar by

Dear Editor…

I (now) know the difference between lie and lay, but I was wondering if this grammar rule had to be followed in dialogue? I would like my character to talk about “laying out” and tanning but trying to say it grammatically correct seems too stilted and wrong. What’s the verdict?

Sincerely,

Rachel

Dear Rachel…

You know those two pairs of hash marks that surround the dialogue in your manuscript? Some people call them double quotation marks. I call them shields. Why? Because they deflect the rules of grammar as surely as shields deflect photon torpedoes away from the Starship Enterprise. When characters speak in a piece of fiction, the only real rules are clarity and believability. If your character would mix up lay and lie when she speaks in her fictional world, you are right to record her grammar gaffe in your manuscript. It’ll be most believable to readers if she’s frequently casual with her grammar, but that’s not required. Plenty of people in real life get lie and lay mixed up.

Happy writing!

The Editor

re: Word Counts for Published Novels

in Formatting/Punctuation/Grammar by

Dear Editor…

How do you find out how many words are in a published novel? You mentioned that Bud, Not Buddy was 52,000 words. Did you estimate from the number of pages in the book or is there somewhere we can find out that information?

Thanks,

Becky

Dear Becky…

Aw, that’s easy-peasy. You just count the number of words on an average text-only page from the book in question, multiply that by the number of pages in the book, then subtract from that the number of non-text pages in the book and multiply the result by pi and then divide that by your age on your last acknowledged birthday and…. Oh, heck, you’re a writer and I’m an editor, let’s skip the math and just use this shortcut: go to renlearn.com and click on their “Quiz Store” tab. Type in the book title, press GO, then click on the title in the search results and viola! Word count.

FYI, I’m not affiliated with Renaissance Learning. This lovely feature has been known and referenced by curious writers for years.

Happy writing!

The Editor

re: Is My MG Manuscript Too Wordy?

in Formatting/Punctuation/Grammar/Submissions/Teen/Middle Grade Fiction by

Dear Editor…

Is a 50,000-word MG novel too long? If I send a query to an agent with the word-count, will they be likely to dismiss it based on the word count?

Thanks!

Heather

Dear Heather…

That’s not an alarming word count. Middle grade fiction typically falls between 25,000 – 45,000 words, leaning toward the smaller end of the spectrum more often than not. But there are no set numbers. Consider this: Karen Cushman’s The Midwife’s Apprentice is a slim one at 22,000 words (about 122 printed pages, depending on the edition in your hand). Christopher Paul Curtis’s Bud, Not Buddy, comes in at about 52,000 words (245 book pages, again depending on how your edition has been designed). There you have it, two Newbery Medal books that show the word count spectrum can be stretched either way for great stories.

Happy writing!

The Editor

Happy writing!

The Editor

re: Chapter Titles V. Chapter Numbers

in Formatting/Punctuation/Grammar by

Dear Editor…

Do agents/editors like to see chapter titles? Or are just numbered chapters okay?

Sincerely,

Heather

Dear Heather…

Numbers are fine. Only some storytelling styles lend themselves to chapter titles, and agents/editors know that. Karen Cushman’s The Ballad of Lucy Whipple uses everything—chapter numbers, titles, and subtitles: “Chapter One – Summer 1849 – In which I come to California, fall down a hill, and vow to be miserable there.” If chapter titles aren’t right for your style, use numbers in the manuscript to signal the chapter breaks and then you, your editor, and your book designer will decide later on whether to use numbers or symbols (or nothing at all!) for the final bound book.

Happy writing!

The Editor

re: Is Past Tense Safe for Synopses?

in Formatting/Punctuation/Grammar/Teen/Middle Grade Fiction by

Dear Editor…

I am working on a synopsis for my MG novel. It is written in present tense, except for a few sentences (in past tense) that provide background material explaining why a character did something. Is that okay?

Sincerely,

Theresa

Dear Theresa…

You’re in the clear. Fiction synopses follow the “literary present” axiom and are written in present tense, but it’s okay to break away, just for a sentence or two, to mention a past event that somehow informs the present happenings:

  • Sarah hates jocks, who always stop and hassle her, wondering if she’s the girl who almost burned down the gym last year. Luckily, Sarah’s brother saved the gym—and her along with it. He even saved the spirit banner from the flames. Now, on the anniversary of the fire, her brother gets to strut down the hall like some super hero while she has to hide behind her locker door until the bell rings.

As long as you keep past tense breakaways short, sweet, and rare, no one will be confused or distracted.

Happy writing!

The Editor

re: Help for Em-Dashaholics

in Formatting/Punctuation/Grammar by

Dear Editor…

You recently answered a question about seeing spots (ellipses). I’m wallowing in dashes, like these: —. Can you explain why dashes are different lengths and when to use which?

Sincerely,

Randalf

Dear Randalf…

You’ve come to the right person—I’m an em-dashaholic, and their overuse is an urge I constantly stifle. It’s just that they’re so darned useful! Em-dashes are those long dashes that indicate a break in a line of thought—and I love interrupting myself. You can use them to add dramatic emphasis or an explanation to the main clause as I have here. They have more kick than a comma, which is why I adore them. Em-dashes are the length of the “m” in your chosen font, with no spaces on either side. Their close buddies are en-dashes, which are half the measure of the “m” and signal a range, such as 1 – 4. En-dashes do have spaces on either side of them. Now, don’t confuse those little guys with the even shorter hyphen, which is a dash that separates numbers that are not a range, like a phone number (555-7676), as well as compound words such as “all-out.” Hyphens touch the letters or numbers on either side.

You can find both em- and en-dashes in your word processing program’s symbols section. Or make the computer do it for you:

  • Em-dash: using your hyphen key, type two dashes between words with no spaces on either side and the program will automatically change the dashes to a single em-dash when you’re done with the second word. So “thoughtdashdashand” becomes “thought—and”
  • En-dash: type a single dash with your hyphen key, with single spaces on both sides, when you want to indicate a range. Your program will automatically change your dash to an en-dash, turning “1 dash 4” into “1 – 4”

Happy writing!

The Editor

re: How Many Dots for Ellipses?

in Formatting/Punctuation/Grammar by

Dear Editor…

I use ellipses a lot in my current manuscript. But how do I know when to use three dots and when to use four? And someone told me I’m spacing them incorrectly. Huh?

Sincerely,

Seeing Spots in San Diego

Dear Seeing Spots in San Diego…

Ellipses are just tiny blots of ink, I know, but bobbling them distracts editors and who wants that? Here’s the skinny:

Use THREE dots, tapping your space bar before and after each one, to indicate an omission within a sentence, to join sentence fragments, or to indicate an intentional trailing off of a complete sentence. Hence:

  • “It’s too bad this snooze inducer isn’t a hilarious comedy.” becomes “It’s . . . a hilarious comedy.”
  • “The dog skidded around the corner, spun wildly in circles, then crashed into a pile of clothes.” becomes “The dog skidded . . . spun wildly . . . then crashed into a pile of clothes.”
  • “If I had my way . . . ,” he mumbled.

Use FOUR dots, with the first dot smashed up against the letter preceding it, when a complete sentence precedes your ellipses: “My choice was agonizing. . . . Yes. I’d do it. I’d do it!”

For the full scoop on ellipses, read the Chicago Manual of Style, starting at 11-51. And, hey, about the ellipses spacing in DearEditor.com’s salutation, ignore it. It was a stylistic choice in the web design. Really, I swear. . . .

Happy writing!

Sincerely,

The Editor

re: Giving Editors Their (Line)Space

in Formatting/Punctuation/Grammar by

Dear Editor…

I know the correct format for a novel is to begin Chapter One two-thirds down the page. Once, I read that other chapters should begin 1/3 down the page. This looks really weird to me, like I made a mistake in spacing. Do editors expect or desire to see manuscripts with successive chapters spaced 1/3 down the page?

Sincerely,

Carol

Dear Carol…

Don’t sweat this detail. Editors don’t care about that. If they get past Chapter One when reading your submission, they’re far more interested in what you’re doing within the story than with the spacing above the chapter headers. The difference is so minor, just choose the one that feels most pleasing to your eyes.

Happy writing!

The Editor

re: Thinking about Direct Thoughts

in Formatting/Punctuation/Grammar by

Dear Editor…

I’m reading more novels, especially YA, where direct thoughts are put in italics. It’s clearer, and obviously editors are accepting/using the style. I’d prefer to use it in my YA novel. Advice?

Sincerely,

Karen

Dear Karen…

For better or worse, there’s no definitive law in publishing about whether or not to italicize direct thoughts or set them roman. Words into Type references using italics for thoughts, while The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th ed. leans more toward roman type, with neither tome issuing a true edict on the matter.

YA novels commonly sport direct thoughts because that’s a handy visual cue for younger readers: Not in this lifetime, she thought. (And with italics in play, you can often omit the “she thought” part, which is a nice bonus. Most of the time, the fewer words, the better.) Adult books are more likely than YA to use roman type for direct thoughts: Not in this lifetime, she thought. Ultimately, this is a matter of “house style.” That is, each publishing house (sometimes even each imprint within a house) picks one mode over the other and instructs all their copyeditors to mark up manuscripts accordingly. The good news is that without an authoritative decree in place, you’re free to indulge your preference. As long as you apply it consistently, you’re good to go. When the time comes for your editor to transmit your final manuscript to the copyeditor, you can request your mode of choice for the final book. If “house style” calls for the other mode, so be it. It’s not an issue worth battling over.

Happy writing!

The Editor

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