Notes from MisCon 27, Part 6
(To see all my posts on MisCon, including last year’s notes, go here.)
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.
Panel title: Writer: Oppress Thyself
Panel members: Brenda Carre, Deby Fredericks, Manny Frishberg, Andrea Howe
Panel description: Get some advice on proofreading, editing, and cleaning up your stories. Learn to crush your exposition, oppress your repetition, and make your punctuation orderly and efficient.
AH: Do you have any pet peeves?
BC: People try to self-edit too much at the beginning. They never get anywhere when they’re constantly tripping over the editor.
MF: The misuse of less and fewer. The use of triage as choose. It’s supposed to be a medical term. The use of commas.
DF: I don’t like that writers think that punctuation and grammar don’t matter. If you’re doing this as a profession, you should adhere to the standards. Look for an English course. Read a lot. Study your favorite authors and write out a page. Hold yourself to a higher standard. I don’t like writers with an ordinary idea who present it as a new idea. You need to distinguish yourself. Some talk that execution matters more than the idea. For example, in Bunnicula, the cat mistakes a stake for a steak. It’s on you to catch these things.
AH: It’s a writer’s first impression. If you can’t spell or punctuate, then it’s like showing up to a wedding in cutoffs. They’d throw you out of the wedding. Your book will end up in the trash. No one is going to read the story if they’re blinded by mistakes. But don’t let it stifle creativity. On your first draft, if you start cutting things out, it’s a waste of time. Your goal is to finish.
MF: As a freelance magazine writer, you submit a query letter. These first pages is like a job application. If you screw it up, you won’t get the job.
BC: Be aware of correct word usage. Certain words convey certain ideas. Get a really good thesaurus. It’s the lead avenue to word usage. Have a reference in hand.
MF: Mark Twain had some advice, that the difference between the right and the almost right word is like lightning and the lightning bug.
AH: Use a dictionary to get the correct meaning.
DF: It’s like a “cornucopia of trees.” It doesn’t make sense because cornucopia has a certain connotations. Say what you mean to say.
AH: What references you you recommend?
BC: The Transitive Vampire and The Well Tempered Sentence.
MF: Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses, The Guardian‘s article on the responses of twenty-seven editors for writing rules.
AH: The Gregg Reference Manual. It has an example of everything.
MF: AP Stylebook.
AH: For a novel, use The Chicago Manual of Style. English keeps changing. It’s a living entity.
DF: If you don’t keep up with the change, only few people will read your stuff because it’s not current.
BC: Look at an old dictionary. You’ll find everyday words back then have become archaic. The usage of “lie”, “lay”, and “laid” have changed.
MF: Use “few” if you want discrete numbers that you can count. Use “less” if it’s general. There’s also ’til and until. Till has started showing up in pop publications.
AH: I object to people switching back and forth on the rules. Pick one rule and stick with it.
DF: I hate “impact” used as a verb.
BC: Or “source.”
Q: I view A (space) B and AB as different. But some people don’t. For example, every day and everyday.
AH: I see that on store hours. I post “grammar in the wild” on Facebook. It makes me want to correct the signs. My aunt actually corrected signs.
BC: I once saw in a Sydney paper, “intersection between May and November.”
Q: What about “looking to” as an encompassing term? Like “looking to go to school” or “looking to publish a book”? I see it everywhere.
MF: In this country, there’s mass communication. Lots of regional quirks become national. And it will seem wrong to people who grew up elsewhere.
DF: Some of them are in vogue.
BC: There’s a mapping project on those regionalisms. I also saw a YouTube video of the dialogue of different eras. You may change word usage if it reflects the character. But that does not change the punctuation.
AH: There are some people who deliberately misspell to show a character’s ignorance even though it’s pronounced the same. Keep the weird dialects out.
MF: Long sections in dialect–editors hate that.
Q: In eastern Idaho, the adverb is an endangered species. People say “good” or “drive safe”–they take off the -ly. It seems like a regional thing.
AH: It’s spreading.
Q: Do you put your manuscript away for a while before you look for mistakes?
BC: Yes. I’ve put one manuscript away for six years.
MF: I put away the first short story I wrote for twenty years. Mostly for emotional distance. Usually it’s for a few months. Then you can look at it as writing rather than your baby.
BC: But it’s a good idea to finish the story first before putting it away or you will lose the momentum. It will be more difficult to finish later.
Q: In various writer groups I’ve been in, it’s drilled in that we should get rid of adjectives and adverbs.
MF: No rules of grammar or composition are absolute. Excessive use may be a problem.
AH: It’s everything in moderation. You only break the rules for emphasis.
Q: What tricks do you use to break out of saying the same thing over and over again?
DF: Find a different way of saying it.
MF: Use metaphor.
BC: Use a different structure.
AH: Add dialog.
MF: Some people use adverbs in dialog tags. It’s almost always a beginner’s mistake. How the character feels should be reflected in what they say. With few exceptions, use “said” because it’s mostly invisible. Unique dialog tags sound awful.
DF: Attribution can be confused if the sentence is badly put together. Then you don’t know who is talking. Make it clear who is speaking. You can change gender if it gets confusing with two male or two female characters.
BC: Beware dangling participles and modifiers. In Lord of the Rings, there’s one sentence when read aloud sounds weird. “Bill stood beside the pony sucking his teeth.”
MF: If you read it aloud, you will catch mistakes. A friend was reading a short story about Lewis and Clark and there was a dog named Seaman. There was a sentence: “Seaman erupted from the bushes.”
AH: If you’re tripping over it, the reader probably will too.
Q: When I read my stories, I only see the edit in my head and skip over it on the page. Do you have a trick to see the mistakes?
MF: Read it aloud, slowly, with your mind focused on grammar rather than the story. Read half of the lines backwards. It makes you look at the words.
BC: There’s a difference looking at it on the computer versus the hard copy.
Q: Have someone else read it aloud to you.
Q: What do you think about the trend in literature for using present tense?
AH: I don’t like it. It’s harder to process. But The Hunger Games uses it. Anything is possible.
MF: They started using present tense in magazine writing about twelve or fourteen years ago. Consistency matters–switching present and past tense will jar the reader.
DF: We all have an inner critic or support system that tells you that you can’t do it. Find it in yourself to overcome the criticism and don’t let the doubts oppress you.