As our guest blogger this Friday, I'd like to welcome Kelly Mortimer with her insights on grammar.
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 An unpublished author needs every edge available to break in.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.