Friday, January 11, 2008

Top Five Grammar Gaffes

As our guest blogger this Friday, I'd like to welcome Kelly Mortimer with her insights on grammar.

Hi Everyone,

For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Kelly Mortimer of Mortimer Literary Agency. A literary agent wears many hats; some are voluntary. I’m an editing agent. That’s voluntary. So, what does that mean? I line edit manuscripts as I read them, as a copy editor for a publishing house would. As an unagented writer, you need to self-edit.

Why? Because you want an agent/editor to READ your submission, not stop after the first paragraph, or line, in some cases. Some say grammar doesn't matter, that a good story is enough. Truth is, the competition’s fierce. Only 1 in 1,000 submitted manuscripts get published. An unpublished author needs every edge available to break in. The cleaner your work, the better shot ya have. So, what are some “red flags” that tell an agent/editor you’re a rookie? Here are my top five, which I see all the time.

(1) Using sounds or facial expressions instead of the word said. Dialogue should carry the emotion, not an adverb shoring up said. A character can’t: bark, growl, snap, chuckle, howl, grimace, roar, smile, or snarl, etc., a word. Use said and eliminate said adverbs. Also, don’t reverse to read, said she. Save that for the kiddy books.

(2) Not using a word for its intended purpose. The worst offenders: pretty and little. Pretty in its intended form means cute, beautiful, etc. Example: “She has pretty hair.” Incorrect: “She arrived pretty late.” Little in its intended form means tiny or small. Example: “She has a little dog.” Incorrect: “Her dog ate very little.”

(3) Passive sentence structure. So many writers have a problem with this. It takes dedication and practice to avoid passive writing. Active structure is A does to B. Passive structure is B is done by A, or, the subject of the sentence is acted upon. Example - Passive: “The soup was stirred by Jane.” Active: “Jane stirred the soup.” Watch for was before words ending in ed. Check: that, had, and forms of to be as well.

Also, phrases pairing was with words ending in ing, which are Progressive Past. Example: “Jane was running.” Simple Past (usually preferred): “Jane ran.” Sentences require progressive past if something interrupts an action. Example: “Jane was stirring the soup when the doorbell rang.”

(4) Using backstory or too much internal thought. Don’t write long paragraphs of internal thought or backstory to “info dump” every detail of a character’s past. Break it up. Change to dialogue or action whenever possible. No backstory allowed in the first chapter (at least)!

(5) Overusing exclamation points and/or italics. I must stress how unnerving it is to see so many words in italics! It drives me crazy! I can't stand it! It yanks me out of the story! And if a writer uses too many exclamation points, which denote shouting or the mental equivalent, then I’d have a headache if I were reading aloud!

So, do yourself, and the person you're submitting to, a favor. Read your chapters aloud, slowly, before you submit your partial. Your ear can often hear what your eyes can't see.

More about Kelly:

Kelly Mortimer started Mortimer Literary Agency with one thought in mind: There were too many great writers who couldn't get their foot in the door. She's only 5'4”, but she wears a size 8-1/2 shoe, so she thought she could help. And she has, selling manuscripts for her first two clients in the same week.

In her agency's first full year of business, the American Christian Fiction Writers nominated Kelly for their "Agent of the Year" award.

Kelly finished as #11 on the Publisher’s Marketplace list of “Top 100 Dealmakers, 2007” – Romance Category. Boo-Yah!

Kelly has a background in business (she's always giving everyone the business) and has a secret government clearance (really), so your dirty laundry is safe with her.

She has a degree in contract law and has many character witnesses (at least 100 people will attest to the fact she's a character). Being Italian, she loves to chat with editors, booksellers, and writers, unless, of course, her hands are full.

Kelly knows the literary business and will use her maniacal type-A personality to work her heart out (yes, some agents DO have hearts) for her select family of clients. In order to be accessible to her authors, her client list will remain short. As more clients need less of her time (sniffle, sniffle), she'll be open to adding more writers.

She wants to ferret out those unpublished authors whose manuscripts are great as is, but no one'll give them a chance, or those whose manuscripts are close, but need some work to catch an editor's eye (she provides every client with a mitt).

Kelly’s personal service includes:
Returning her clients’ calls and e-mails within 24 hours (on weekdays) unless she didn't receive the message, or she’s dead, in which case clients have her permission to seek other representation.
She’ll give a client’s first manuscript a full line edit, along with her best suggestions for making the work shine. Warning: She’s disgustingly honest (but not mean), and loves heckling (c'mon, she’s gotta have SOME fun). She’ll edit the client’s other manuscripts as needed until they sell and get an editor (who’ll be disgustingly honest in her stead).
She’ll send manuscripts out to pre-selected editors in a timely manner (usually a few days)
Kelly sends her clients a monthly report so they know who has what, where.
She’ll believe in you and give you pep-talks as needed, or slap you around–her choice.

Kelly can't promise you'll get published. The book-buying business is subjective. She might think your writing is the next best thing to a heaping bowl of pasta, but 100 editors might not (some editors have no taste!). Still, she'll travel far and wide, search every newsletter, read every blog, scour every avenue (including Boardwalk and Park Place), to find the editor who wants to buy your manuscript.

Having a big-name agent from a large agency representing you might be great. Kelly feels: It's not the size of the dog in the fight; it's the size of the fight in the dog.

Check out Mortimer Literary Agency here.


Anitra Lynn McLeod said...

Thanks for the insight Kelly! I love your sense of humor. Now I'm going to go check my manuscript . . . :)

Helen Scott Taylor said...

Thanks for your words of advice, Kelly. Before I started to write, I didn't worry too much about grammar in what I read unless it interfered with my comprehension. It's amazing how picky I've become now. I'm surprised how many published novels have grammar errors.

Terry Odell said...

Kelly's grammar guide works wonders on a manuscript. she makes you more than part of a team; you're part of a family. She definitely goes the extra mile for clients.

Savanna Kougar said...

Kelly, you sound like one heck of an agent! I wish...but as a reader I absolutely HATE the way the word 'said' is used these days. So I don't use it. Ever! Except in the dialogue itself. Or in a parody situation such as 'he said, she said'.
I'm hoping readers and reviews will be open to my way of tagging dialogue scenes, as I do in ALL SHADES OF BLUE PARADISE. For authors who are okay with e-publishing maybe Siren Publishing will give you a shot at another way of writing. Like they are me.

Terry Odell said...

Just the opposite for me as a reader... "said" is invisible. All the "thesaurus" words stop me and I go back to make sure the dialogue "matched" the word. I was reading a Robert. B. Parker Spencer book, and realized he'd used "said" to tag almost every line of dialogue for 3 pages, but until I went and looked for it, I hadn't noticed. Jack M. Bickham's 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes says "Don't be afraid to use said" for #19. And I think Browne & King's "Self Editing for Fiction Writers" which really taught me the craft, suggests "said" should be used about 85% of the time.

Kristin said...

I agree, Terry. "Said" is invisible when I am reading. As for my writing, if the dialogue is between two people, I don't use a tag every time. I will just have dialogue...and perhaps action included. Until I feel the need to clarify again who is speaking.

For example:

"I don't want to go to school." Janie thrust her books into her backpack and glared at her mother.

Pam set a glass of juice in front of her daughter. "If you're not on that bus in five minutes, young lady, it's no computer time for a week."

Ta-da! No need for 'said' or any dialogue tags at all. In fact, I do prefer actions sometimes to give an idea of how a line of dialogue is spoken or the emotion behind the conversation.

Sandra Cox said...

Great blog. Thanks, Kelly. And you're right about the passive/active. Its always a challenge.

Savanna Kougar said...

I agree, in terms of some writers, who can successfully use 'said' invisibly. And certainly, as Trish demonstrated, a lot of times I don't use tags. I'm sorry, I still HATE the use of 'said' in what I've read over the past ten years. It's like it's been done to over-death. IMHO. However, to each their own cup of reading tea.

Kristin said...

To me, Savanna, that's like saying the word 'the' has been done to death or 'and.' There are just some basic words that you have to use in writing that do become 'invisible' to the reader, and that you couldn't really eliminate realistically. I don't think I've ever once been taken out of a book because of the word 'said.'

But I most definitely have if a writer uses everything *but* said as a dialogue tag...or use an adverb+said. Ugh.

"Said" is a basic word that gets the meaning across without detracting from the sentence.

Savanna Kougar said...

Kristen, while I can understand what you're saying, however and for example, you haven't read the novels I've written, where I don't use 'said' as a dialogue tag. I got so completely sick of that word, I couldn't stand it! I felt like pulling my hair out -- ugh! Because I'd keep asking myself, what does that mean? How are the characters feeling, why and how are they saying their words? Said, said, said...who the heck cares? Not me!
Yes, maybe my novels, or my style of writing, is not for you. That I can understand. Just as over-used and over-abused 'said' novels are not for me. Can you spell B-O-R-I-N-G!?
And, that IMHO, is why there is a wide variety of writing styles available.
My lack of 'said' can't have completely turned off editors, since Murder by Hair Spray did final. And I certainly don't use 'said' as a tag line in that novel. When the dialogue entries come out on RT, I'll post mine, and you can then decide whether or not my style of writing is worth your reading time.

Lexie O'Neill said...

Just wanted to say thank you for the wonderful blog...the advice is great, and the writing fun. Thank you...and I would go check my manuscript, but I'm sleepy and my bed is whining...:) Tomorrow, then...

Kristin said...

No, Savanna, you are right, I haven't read your writing. And I hope you don't think by my comments I was judging your books. I just was in disagreement with how you viewed the word 'said.'

To me, it is invisible and a necessity in my writing. Perhaps my style is much different than yours.

I am only commenting on my experience with reading books that use anything *but* said or adverb+said. I find it distracting. Someone else may not.

That is why people enjoy such a variety of books.

Just as much as you took offense at my comments, can you see how I might find yours equally offensive? If I think 'said' is necessary and invisible, and you think it is 'boring,' then you have made a judgment on my writing as well without ever having read it.

Mel Hiers said...

Late Comment! :-)

Hiya Kelly! Welcome to Title Magic!

My writer's group was dealing with dialogue attributions this weekend, so I wish I had read all of your comments first!

One of our members never uses said, opting instead for things like "she yawned" "he sneered" "she boasted" and even sometimes going so far as replacing said with lines of action that should have been sentences in and of themselves. You could see everyone at the table winced when he read one of those because they were so obvious and awkward.

I told him that his dialogue didn't need descriptive attributions. Good dialogue doesn't need things like "he boasted" because you can tell that he's boasting from the thing he said. In most cases it's better to use nothing at all, the word said for clarity's sake, or something akin to Kristin's examples. At least it was for his writing style, anyway!

Hope everybody had a great weekend!

Savanna Kougar said...

Kristen, I'm sorry if you feel offended. That was not my intention. I did take offense from your -- what I perceive to be -- an inflexible stand. When you haul out reference books, yes, I have a tendency to believe you have no room for something new. The ole' rules-are-made-to-be-broken-by-some-of-us-thing. I have previously stated there are certain writing styles where 'said' works and does become invisble, which I enjoy. Why, you have ignored my truth in this matter, I am not sure. I hope, since you now say, you are a writer, that your particular writer's voice is conducive to 'said'. Personally, I've said 'said' so many times now, I am bored with it. As I previously stated, which seems to be ignored, everyone does have their own cup of reading tea, which I totally respect. I am not asking you to like reading my novels, not at all. I simply suggested you check out my post on the dialoque entry for the American Title, that's all. It won't waste too much of your time. And if you want to say you hate it, fine by me. I personally do not care for being accused for what I did not say. Since I take great pains to say it for the sake of truth. If you want to put 'said' in every sentence of your novel, be my guest. I thought I offered a fair and just way for both of us to agree to disagree. You read my dialogue entry and decide for yourself. That's all! However, it's certainly fine my me if you choose not to, since the word 'said', will not be used as a dialogue tag. Every one of us is free to write as we see fit, including said use of 'said', or if we want to use 'boast' we can. Now, if it doesn't work, it doesn't work. But I will confess I rather like 'boast'. However, I didn't read the story so I have no way of determining if it worked or not. So, I'll take Mel's word for it.