Monday, June 24, 2013

Cursing in Novels

Happy Monday everyone! I hope you all were able to see the awesome supermoon and enjoy the longest day of the year!

Today I wanted to discuss an interesting topic in writing, cursing. For most of you, this is not the edit you ever look for, but today I want to address why it’s important to be aware of this edit in particular.

Before I continue, I want to clarify that this is a subjective topic; different writers and editors will have different opinions in regards to it.

What the Editor Thinks about Cursing
Depending on the editor you talk to, you’ll get varying answers. The traditional opinion is to use none or a couple curse words at max. I believe that opinion is changing as more and more individuals self-publish since the novels they release tend to be edgier, and that includes cursing.

I actually happen to like a bit of cursing in the novels that I read. Not so much that it becomes distracting, but enough to know that these are real people that I’m reading about rather than some goofy cartoon that says doggonit instead of goddamnit (and so on). But this too is not black and white—a writer can convince me of anything if they execute it masterfully enough.

What the Reader Thinks
Funny enough, you can have gory murder scenes and raunchy sex scenes without garnering too much reader anger, but if you curse or take the Lord’s name in vain too many times, readers will deduct stars from their reviews. I’ve seen it; it makes no sense in many cases. Still, as a writer, you should be aware of this.

Why Do Readers Get Upset?
Most people curse or have cursed at some point in their lives. Cursing can be distasteful, but it’s certainly not taboo in many real world situations.

So why are readers upset?

My guess is that readers feel that the language itself is getting butchered. And many times writers can dig deeper than a curse word and come up with some truly exquisite ways of expressing themselves. (Just look at all the creative insults Shakespeare came up with instead of cursing.)

There’s also such a thing as escalating emotional conflict too quickly, and I believe this applies to curse words. Readers can feel that the text reads too unnaturally if, at the drop of a hat, a reader goes from content to dramatically unhappy, to incensed, and then back to happy. This same concept can apply to the actual language itself. If the reader feels the writer writes the book a certain way, and then wham, there’s a curse word, it’s jarring and perhaps unbelievable. Curse words stick out like a sore thumb, so the more of these you have, the less believable your writing might be.

What You Should Do
No, you don’t have to remove all of your swear words. Like I mentioned earlier, I’m not against curse words in writing. A few of them strategically placed can really improve the shit out of a book.

Instead, assess your own opinion on the issue, and don’t let the thought of a few negative reviews dissuade you—I promise that those negative reviews won’t disappear, they’ll just criticize a different aspect of your novel. I would suggest going through your manuscript and thinning out the curse words wherever possible and leaving in those that enhance the text. Below I’ve also included a great alternative to curse words.

Good Replacements
It’s going to sound ridiculous, but when it comes to curse words, sometimes telling is better than showing. This is one of the few occasions where I’ll ever say that, so don’t go buck wild with the telling! The lines that always seem to work are, “S/he swore,” and “S/he cursed.” Here’s an example of the difference:

“This is fucking bullshit.” 
He swore.

This type of paraphrasing keeps the language classy while allowing the reader to know that the character cursed. 

Because this is such a subjective topic, I’m not going to give you a hard and fast rule here. However, if you want to play it safe, keep cursing to a minimum in your novel. Readers tend to dislike swearing in novels, and they will give your book a lower review—or at the very least comment on it—if it bothers them. However, I do like reading books that are edgier, and my guess is that as more authors self-publish, readers will be exposed to more curse words, and this post might appear ridiculous in a few years. Until then, consider the pros and cons of curse words in your novel based on this information, and correct as needed.

Happy writing,

Laura Carlson, Editor
American Editing Services

Thursday, June 13, 2013

A Must-Read Article on Publishing

I wanted to write up a quick post after reading a fabulous Huffington Post article that is helpful and relevant to all authors and aspiring authors. 

Regardless of whether you’re self-publishing or going a traditional route, it’s important to know where the industry is at and to understand a bit of the economics that go into making your book successful. This article sheds some light on some trends currently occurring in the industry.

Here’s the article. Enjoy!

Happy writing,

Laura Carlson, Editor
American Editing Services

Monday, June 10, 2013

Em Dashes: The Correct Way to Write Them into Your Text

Happy Monday everyone! Em dashes may appear to be of minor importance in your writing, but this is an important read since I can count on one hand—one hand—the number of writers who have not had to receive this edit from me. 

Em Dashes. Okay, I’m really holding back on a rant because these little suckers taunt me all day, and I dislike writing about copyedits. But this is such a prevalent mistake that I want to help clarify it any way I can. 

What is an Em Dash?
An em dash (—), also a long dash, is a punctuation mark used to emphasize/repeat a section of text—like I did above—or insert an aside/nonessential comment into the sentence—like I’m doing here. The mark has other uses, like denoting the author of a quote, but for simplicity’s sake I’ll leave more thorough discussions for blogs focused on copyedits. For those of you English nerds, Emily Dickinson loved these things and used them all the time in her poetry.

How is an Em Dash Different from Other Dashes
To demystify the em dash, let’s go over two other common types of “dashes.” (In quotes since the following aren’t all considered dashes.)

En Dash ()
An en dash () is different from an em dash. There are lots of subtle uses for this punctuation mark, and if you’re interested in looking it up and learning more about it, go for it. (Can you tell I love discussing punctuation?) For now I’ll just state that it’s most common use is in ranges of values—more specifically, years.

Hyphen (-)
Most of you are familiar with the hyphen, which—like the em and en dash—has multiple uses, but it most commonly used to compound two distinct words or the syllables of the same word. It’s sort of a misnomer to call this a dash, but since they look similar, it’s easy to confuse the two.

What’s Causing the Confusion?
There are a few reasons why the em dash is so difficult to punctuate correctly, listed below.

Different Styles
Part of the reason that there is confusion over how to correctly punctuate an em dash is that there are multiple ways of doing this. Some style guides allow writers to replace an em dash (—) with an en dash bordered by a space on either side ( – ). For the record, I’m against this style in the world of fiction writing for a couple reasons. 

One, the predominate punctuation mark used in the American style (as opposed to the British style) is the em dash, and it is the punctuation mark that the Chicago Manual of Style recommends.

Two, en dashes are also routinely formatted incorrectly. I see this all the time because most (if not all) keyboards don’t have a key for an en dash. That means that, just like an em dash, Word has to auto format these. So, so often I see a single hyphen bordered by a space on either side trying to pass as an em dash.

Formatting an Em Dash
I think I’ve already proven via explanation how much of a headache formatting these little suckers can be. Writers can create an em dash using a combo of hyphens, en dashes, and spaces, but there is only one correct way—okay two correct ways, but I prefer one over the other—to get an em dash.

How to Format an Em Dash
Here’s how you can fix those em dashes once and for all.

Step One 
Come to a place where you need to insert an em dash.

Ex. “Hey wait

Step Two
Insert two hyphens following the word that will precede your em dash.

Ex. “Hey wait--
***Make sure that there are NO SPACES between the word and the two hyphens.

Step Three
Insert the word that follows the em dash

Ex. “Hey wait--what?”
***Again make sure that there are no spaces in between the hyphens and the words that border it.

Step Four
Hit the space bar after you add on the word that follows the em dash, and Microsoft Word will auto format this into an em dash.

Ex. “Hey wait—what?”

Note that Word only auto formats two hyphens into an em dash when a word follows it. This means that if you have punctuation (such as quotation marks) or nothing that follows your em dash, you’re going to have to write in a placeholder word, hit the space key for it to auto format, and then delete the word. You might be able to play with this a little on your own version of Word and set it up to auto format it always, but I’m guessing that many of you, like me, are a little allergic to technology.

Happy writing,

Laura Carlson, Editor
American Editing Services

Monday, June 3, 2013

Don’t Dumb Down Your Characters

Don’t Dumb down Your Characters to Make Your Plot Work

We’ve all read these types of books. The ones where the plot is startlingly obvious, yet the main character is hopelessly oblivious. There are few things more frustrating than this when reading a book, and few things that can do more harm to your novel when writing it.

Why Does This Happen in the First Place?
As a writer, a novel begins as an idea. Then, as that idea takes shape, certain key scenes are created, and these initial scenes can, to the writer, quickly appear to be fundamental. Usually these beginning stages are where writers sabotage themselves by creating a plot that’s too simple. To keep an intelligent group of readers interested, your story needs quite a bit of complexity. If the plot is too simple, then it needs to be manipulated so it ends up more complicated.

When writers don’t add more complexity to their plot, their characters can suffer, and this is how and why dumb characters are created.

Where Does this Happen?
This happens most often somewhere in the middle of the book up until right before the climax.

Why is This Harmful?
If your main character fails to figure out something they should, the reader will know. Worse, the reader will become jaded. After all, once this happens, everything that follows will only exacerbate this flaw. Books build on themselves, so one flaw can have an enormous ripple effect depending on where it’s located. And every time a writer stumbles onto one of these ripples, it reminds them of that flaw and brings them out of the story. Even your most understanding readers will eventually tire of this, and you do not want that—annoyed readers are some of the scariest, most vindictive reviewers on Goodreads and online booksellers.

How Can I Know Whether I’m Doing This?
Ask yourself whether you’d be able to figure out the plot, not as a reader, but as the main character. Given your character’s experiences, would they be able to piece together your story’s plot? And if so, when? Can you track down which vital piece(s) of information connects the dots? It’s that piece (or those pieces) of information that you’ll want to edit.

If this is too difficult to do yourself, ask someone who’s read the book. However, remember that they’ll likely approach it from the stance of the reader, not the main character.

How Dumb is too Dumb?
I can’t believe I just used that line as a subheading, but it is a valid question. After all, as a writer you also have to focus on clarity, which often means simplifying the world of fiction. You can see how simplicity might conflict with character intelligence—it’s all a part of the juggling act that writers take on when writing a book.

In addition, readers are programmed to pick up certain formulaic key clues, clues that a character, living in what he or she considers the “real” world, would not pick up on. As a result, the reader might scream at your character not to leave the phone in the car, or yell at them when they enter the haunted house, but there is no way your characters could know that they are about to get attacked.

Essentially, there is a critical difference between the readers being angry at characters for making dumb choices, and the readers being angry at the authors for making dumb characters. That difference depends on whether or not the reader believes the character should have put two and two together.

How Do I Fix This?
Once you’ve identified if and when you’re doing this, then you have one of two ways to fix this. Either you remove or alter the clue that should solve the riddle, or you change your character’s reaction to it. This latter suggestion will usually be more intensive, since from there on out you’ll need to isolate and edit those areas that are affected later in the book, or you’ll need to change the entire plot arc.

Either way, if this edit applies to you, then I’d suggest inserting a subplot or a plot twist into your novel, since unintelligent characters are usually a symptom of the bigger issue: over-simplified plots.

Happy writing,

Laura Carlson, Editor
American Editing Services