A Peek into MisCon 26, Part 7

by syaffolee

In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Previous posts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6

“The Grammar Panel” was attended by M.J. Engh, Brenda Carre, Andrea Howe, and James Glass as moderator. (AQ is an audience question.)


(Left to right: M.J. Engh, James Glass, Brenda Carre, Andrea Howe)

AQ: There are specific rules used in novels that are not taught, like dialogue. Are there any copy editing resources for that?

MJE: How you punctuate dialogue depends on what sentence it is in. For example: He said, “I’m hot.” and He smiled. “I’m hot.” Is the dialogue part of the sentence or not? One resource is Woe is I by Patricia O’Conner.

JG: Strunk and White.

BC: The Transitive Vampire.

AH: I recommend the Gregg Reference Manual. There are examples for every rule.

MJE: Chicago Manual of Style.

AH: The books aren’t cheap, but they’re worth it.

AQ: Is the discussion on “who” versus “whom” dead?

MJE: Language is always in the state of flux. “Whom” isn’t quite out yet. And it depends on what audience you’re writing to on whether it’s correct or not. Know the rule and apply it appropriately.

JG: One exception is when the character doesn’t know the grammar rules.

MJE: In dialogue, it’s the character’s viewpoint.

AH: Dialogue usually has not “whom” but “who”.

BC: It’s word choice.

JG: One of the dangers is getting overly obsessed with grammar in fiction. You don’t want a character speaking in high English. You need rhythm. Break it up with sentences of different lengths as long as you don’t overdo it.

MJE: There’s often a misapprehension of grammar. It’s not a set of rules. It’s like language, always changing. When you’re learning a foreign language, you can’t just memorize words. You need to learn the pattern of the words. The “rules” are from studying how people talk.

AH: It’s very fluid because the language is alive. Ancient Greek and Latin are dead. As writers, you need to keep up with the times or you’ll lose the audience.

JG: You should read a lot, of all kinds. Go back and read what you’ve written. Does it sound right, even if you don’t know the grammar rules?

BC: Look at how other writers write. You don’t have to write in that style, but you can try it–even typing it out–to see how it works. It’s like painters learning from the greats by copying them.

JG: You’ll learn the rhythm and the beat.

AH: Examine how they communicate on the page strikes you. Is it in the word choice, punctuation, etc.?

JG: I liked to put commas everywhere which broke things up. It helps to read aloud to see where the natural pauses are.

MJE: Even when it’s not grammatically correct, it’s mostly common sense.

AQ: How do you approach inner dialogue? Do you explicitly state, “He thought”?

AH: It’s “He thought” not “He thought to himself”.

JG: I underline thoughts to indicate italics.

MJE: It can be flexible but be consistent on how you indicate this. If everything in the story is his thoughts, then you don’t need to underline.

JG: But you need to give the reader a clue that it’s his thoughts.

AH: Make sure “He thought” is not italicized since it’s part of the narrative.

BC: George R.R. Martin uses a lot of internalization.

AH: Italics are very common.

MJE: People know what it means.

BC: The problem is when you also have telepathy. You need to be clear and consistent.

AH: Mercedes Lackey used colons to indicate telepathy.

MJE: I’ve seen brackets used, too.

BC: Anne Bishop had a story where there were three personalities in one person. The personalities carried conversations with each other so she needed a way to distinguish the three. She used stars and such.

JG: You can also distinguish different people by the way they speak.

AQ: I’ve seen dialogue in foreign languages in angle brackets.

JG: They also put them in italics.

AH: Or subtitles.

AQ: Do you use the Oxford comma?

MJE: Absolutely yes.

AH: Yes.

JG: If you have two things in a list, you don’t have to worry. But more than that, yes.

MJE: There are definitely two schools of thought. Some publishing houses have rules to leave it off. However, there are situations where the last two items are difficult to distinguish.

AQ: There are the examples, “I like to thank my parents, Mother Theresa, and the Pope” or “I invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.”

AH: It’s okay to use commas. There’s no shortage of them.

AQ: Commas between two clauses are now disappearing, especially between short clauses.

AH: You decide on how short the clauses should be. But whatever you do, be consistent.

AQ: What if you have dialogue, then something happens, and then more dialogue–do you break it up into different sentences?

JG: You can do separate sentences or use a comma. Whatever reads best.

MJE: You can break a quotation in the middle with a dash. It depends on mood, rhythm, and meaning.

JG: There’s the long dash.

AQ: What’s the difference between a hyphen and a dash?

AH: They all have different uses, so see a grammar book. The hyphen is used to combine things like compound words (twenty-five, eight-and-a-half-years-old). The n-dash is used for ranges (8-25). The m-dash is used as an interruption for dialogue. This is a different thing in poetry.

AQ: What about the situation where you have dialogue, some action done by someone else other than the speaker, and then more dialogue?

AH: You need a new paragraph.

JG: Because it’s a topic shift.

BC: If you have someone explaining a great deal, not only do you need new paragraphs, but you need to use action to break it up.

AH: For instance in Buffy, the character Giles is always moving while explaining. If he wasn’t moving, it would be boring.

MJE: You can also break it up with the reaction of the person who’s listening.

AH: Make it realistic. Use a comma when it’s a verbal action. If the action isn’t realized, it’s a period.

JG: Again, read. See how other writers do it.

AQ: If you can get older copies, you can find grammar exercises with sentence diagramming. If you can’t decide if it’s wrong or right by just listening, try diagramming the sentence. If you can’t diagram it, it’s the problem.

JG: You can also learn a foreign language to know grammar.

AQ: Someone once told me that everything should be in past tense, including the character’s thoughts.

Entire panel: That’s a problem.

AQ: Some people have been taught that it’s the convention.

BC: A lot of things on the internet have bad copy editing. You need someone to vet it.

AH: Not your best friend or mother.

AQ: What degree should the grammar be when sending something to the editor?

JG: If it’s not a good story, then it doesn’t matter what the grammar is. But if you want a story that sells, you need to clean it up well.

MJE: The editor will think, “If the writer doesn’t respect their own work, then why should I?”

JG: Be professional.

AH: It’s the same thing as a job interview. They won’t think you’re taking the job seriously if you come in with cutoffs and flip-flops. Put a business suit on your manuscript.

JG: You might get told by the editors that they get 2,000 submissions, but in reality you’re only competing with 200 because most of the submissions are written in crayons.

AH: There aren’t many copy editors any more, so your submission could go straight to publication.

AQ: The blog Making Light has a post called Slushkiller and another on how to get published.

JG: It’s the same in magazines as big book publishers. There’s a slush stack and the A stack. Keep writing and get better and better and one day you’ll get into the A stack. It took me eight years. It’s a process that takes a long time.

BC: Editors talk to each other. They’re waiting for the right story.

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On Saturday, I also attended a panel for Inuit fairy tales (presented by Parris ja Young) and heard the tale Skeleton Woman. There was also a panel on vampires presented by Virginia Jones and Elizabeth Brock which talked about vampire mythology around the world. Much of the talk was based on the book Vampires: A Field Guide to the Creatures that Stalk the Night by Bob Curran.

In the evening, there was a costume contest. And then after that, a drag and burlesque show. I was very entertained by the drag queens. The burlesque dancers–not so much.

* * *

Stay tuned for Part 8 where J.A. Pitts, Peter Orullian, and George R.R. Martin talk about plotting a book series.

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