Writing process – top 10 ways of finding grammar errors

Grammar errors are one of the most pesky things to eradicate in the writing process. Scrivener doesn’t find grammar mistakes, and while MS Word is pretty good at finding normal passive errors, it fails to recognize idiom. Language is changing. Sentences can and often do start with ‘and, but, or, though’ in colloquial use.wordsForBooks

If you’re like me, when you write the first draft you don’t pay any attention to the rules. Well, truth to tell, rules are hardly ever my best thing. I tend to think in fragments; that means some of my characters share this trait. Enough said.

Even in a blog, the sentence construction is not a slave to the Oxford English way of writing. Be a bit boring if it was. However, the unintentional grammar error is the bane of a writer’s existence. It’s just fine to break rules on purpose, so long as you know your purpose. Richard Morgan stood the grammar rules on their collective head in Altered Carbon. His more stream-of-consciousness writing included sentence fragments much of the time. None of that made it difficult to read. Instead, it made his protagonist much more sympathetic. So how do I find those errors in the editing process? I have a few tips and tricks to share.

  1. Walk away from the writing for a couple of days to give yourself some distance
  2. Print it out and keep a highlighting pen handy to mark the pieces to come back to
  3. Read it out loud to a friend. The tongue will trip over phrases that aren’t quite right
  4. Do an editing pass with track-changes on
  5. Try turning it upside down – for those of us who can read that way, the comma and grammar errors jump out
  6. Do an editing pass just for dialog.
  7. Use Find / Replace to fix issues like quote plus period (“. wrong) rather than period plus quote (.” correct)
  8. Write with a manual of style handy – look up stuff that you know you get wrong
  9. Replace instances of passive voice (often uses words that end in y) with active voice (often ends in ‘ed’)
  10. Relax about it. No matter how many times you edit, someone will disagree with your choices

I hope some of these prove helpful. Please share the tips and tricks you have found work for you.

Writing process – the first edits

There are a few different notions floating around about how to edit a story. Rachel Aaron talks about an arc for each chapter, an arc for a book, and another arc over a series. I agree with her about having a structure, however, I like to be a bit more organic and varied about it so far. I have a rise and fall in each section. When I reach one of what feels like a natural stopping place, I go back and see if I can make the tension a little tighter, and the resolution a bit more satisfying, even if it is just a section.

However, Jim Butcher also gave some great advice in his blog. He talked about scene and setting. One of his examples was the second Star Wars movie, The Empire Strikes back. His argument was that the whole movie was setting, culminating in the one scene “Luke, I am your father.” That was the payoff. Jim follows that structure in the Harry Dresden novels and the Alera ones too. It works for him, and I’ve learned a bunch from playing with the model of scene and setting or vice versa.

Another idea I’ve run across is one that I like a lot. I think it was Janeke who suggested making a pass through a story for each of the characters, to make sure they sound and act like themselves, with consistency. This is something I always do now. Wouldn’t do for one of the characters to be ‘out of character’ as it were. I’ve extended this to the places as well. Another thing that a beta reader suggested was to have a certain atmosphere associated with a character. Edward, a shape shifted dragon, is new to his human body and is just a bit clumsy in it. He is, however, a dangerous and ancient being who is larger than the human form he is currently inhabiting. Adding some grace notes like shadows to the room that give a hint of his gravitas are the equivalent of the music that accompanies Darth Vader (dum dum dum da da dum …) when he is on screen.

The same goes for the sounds, sights and other sensory information. It is those things that ground the experience we are writing about. If you are like me, those things come in to add depth to the world and the experiences. In the first draft the sketch goes down, telling the story and moving the plot along. In the second pass I want to know what color that robe is and how it is decorated. I want some light and shadow in the room and the fragrance in the air or at least a description of the food on the plate. Cooking is magic too, a person needs to eat, and magical beings are embodied in the world. I find that years after I read a book for the first time, it is the small embellishments that I remember. Captain Picard likes Earl Grey tea. Modesty Blaise preferred a one-piece swimsuit and a kongo as a weapon. Willie Garvin was all about the knives, but James Bond preferred a Berretta. I like to ask myself for at least one defining characteristic for each minor character, and more for the mainline characters, including turns of phrase and patterns in their speech.

I make an editing pass for each of the main characters, another for the sensory elements, and a pass for consistency. Then I ask “how could this be more interesting to the reader?” to tease out things I know but may have forgotten to say explicitly in the story. I am always learning more about the writing and trying to make each story better than the last.

I wonder what editing tips and tricks others have to share from their experiences?

Norman’s pool – a magical place

normansPoolOne of the sites visited by our protagonist Mira Abrose Argent in Library of Time was Norman’s Pool at the Norman Lindsay Gallery. It is an amazing place all on its own and I wanted to share a little more about the location. It is the former home of artist Norman Lindsay, a multi-talented Australian artist.

When I lived in Sydney, I visited the gallery every couple of years. It is one of those places that rekindles a sense of wonder and child-like enjoyment. Norman’s talent ran all the way from illustrating children’s books, writing novels, model ship building, painting in oil and watercolor, sculpting and sketching. His lithographs are multi-layered exemplars of the art. His work was one of the reasons I studied print-making in art school; I wanted to experiment with the techniques he pioneered. It ought to be noted that it was his wife, Rose Lindsay, who did most of the print runs. She was pretty amazing as a person, a model and an artist.

th3DG401AVHowever, it is the grounds of the place that are the most evocative to the would-be artist. Life-sized statues of nymphs, fauns and satyrs romp through the grounds, sculpted hastily from chicken wire and concrete that seems to linger on beyond their ephemeral materials; their sly smiles and sidewise glances provoke smiles from the visitors to the gallery. It is clear that the spirits that the artist saw animating nature did not remain elusive to his maker’s hands.

An Artist is a kind of magician I’ve always thought, making something from nothing and giving the viewer a sense of connection with what the artist sees of the numinous or hidden world of spirit.

Vision and the sight are recurring themes in the current set of novels. What happens if you look too deeply and see too much? How can true sight be a gift and a burden at the same time? Does knowledge equal power, or does it show too clearly the hidden cost of wielding magical power and mundane power in the world. All good food for thought, and Norman Lindsay saw and revealed many hypocritical attitudes in the early half of the twentieth century. His clear vision got him into a different kind of trouble than my characters experience, however, it was fun to add the place to the story. It stars as a meeting place where almost anyone or any otherworldly being might just drop by for a visit.

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I remember the place fondly for the art, the statues, and for the half-glimpsed view of the world of the artist who lived there. It is a place that has inspired more than one artist and author over the years and I am pleased count myself among them.

If you caught the film ‘Sirens’ a while back, that is set in the same location. It stars Ella McPherson, Hugh Grant and Sam Neil. It may not be a spectacularly good bio-pic but it does the grounds and the mores of the time justice. A fun romp of a movie, it is quite naughty in juxtaposing the bohemian ways of the artist and the models with the more straight-laced morals of the preacher who thinks himself rather ‘modern’ in his views. It is a quirky send-up, though fairly gentle in its humor. I found it charming.

As a place, Norman’s pool is now empty of water for most of the year; you’ll have to imagine what it would have been like with water lilies. In the hot Australian summer, it would have been a favorite place to get some relief from the heat. The surrounding bush is beautiful, resinous and fragrant with Eucalyptus. The surrounding walks are private and a little wild and the calls of the birds could be the laughter of women or dryads calling from the bush. Quite a magical place, and a great day-trip from Sydney. I recommend it highly.

 

A writer exploring her medium

It is an exciting time to be living in as an author, exploring the medium of fiction in multiple formats. The electronic book feels so ephemeral, while the trade paperback feels more lasting and tangible. Both have their charms but I am struck by how different the same work can feel in the two different mediums.

Print will always have my heart I think with the feeling of the pages, the smell of the ink, and the whole experience of interacting with an artifact. Yet my kindle has made it possible to keep a whole library with me; as long as I have a power charge, I can visit with old friends any time I like, no matter where I am. I no longer run late for work in searching for a book to add to my bag before I run out the door; it’s sad to admit how many buses I’ve missed over the years just because I couldn’t bring myself to leave before I had a book in hand. As an author, each of print and ebook is satisfying in its own way – both get into the hands of readers and that’s a happiness.

Fiction is a new departure for me and I’m as happy as a kid in the candy store. For the past twenty odd years, I’ve been focused on technical writing and non fiction. I had no idea fiction could be so rewarding! The characters are about as noisy and demanding as a screech of lyrebirds in the Australian bush. Those pesky creatures are mimics who love to make the sound of squeaky playground swings. My characters keep up the racket in my head until I get their words and stories out.

I must admit to experimenting with the novella format more than a bit; Child of Time is a story in three parts that could be considered three separate short stories. Thematically, it moves through time and explores a single protagonist as she grows up and grows into her magic. It is a single story, yes. It is also a set of stories about a character at different ages. Will be experimenting with the novella form more as time goes on. I already have ideas for another sequence of three stories, threaded together through time.

For me, it feels like around a hundred pages, or around 20,000 words is a good chunk of story. I hope that the readers agree as it means publishing is feasible as soon as there is a sequence to share in ebook and print. Less than 100 pages doesn’t feel print-worthy to me, but other folks mileage may vary.

Stages of writing – the first draft

The first and quickest part of the writing process, for me, is getting the first draft done. Quite like writing non-fiction, I start anywhere. It might be an introduction to the character, a scene that may be incorporated, or a piece of dialog. From there, I figure out where that piece fits in and write scenes before and after it. Only then does an outline emerge.

I use scrivener for writing for the most part, however, if I’m stuck in a meeting I’ve been known to scribble in the back of a notebook or put some words down into one-note when an idea comes to me. On my phone I use one-note and am learning to use some audio recordings while I’m driving in the car.

Before the first draft there is usually an idea about the scene, some questions that reveal something about the main character and their cirsumstances.

  • Mira has issue with her family that sets her at odds with them. What is that?
  • About the magic? Her place in the family? The arranged marriage they’re trying to get her to agree to?
  • What is it about her magic and power that is at odds with their pursuit of power?
  • What does she see with her gifts that makes her step away from them?

I throw the main character into the first scene against the backdrop of the questions and see what happens. During this phase, I pay attention to the rhythm of the scene – quick, quick, slow or slow, slow, quick – depending on the energy of the events. As the stories are urban fantasy, I want to ground the action in everyday events. The mundane is punctuated by the magical actions and, ideally, the rhythm brings the aspects of the scene into balance.

I may decide to do a second pass on the draft to add action sequences or dialog that shows more of the motivations, especially for the political tensions.

During first draft phase, I also read it aloud to my partner or one of my beta readers. Getting their initial feedback helps me to refine the story on the next pass. It also lets me know which pieces to keep, especially if they clap their hands or laugh in delight. My partner is great at asking questions I hadn’t thought of, or asking about motivations.

Occasionally I’ll plot out a whole short story. For the most part, however, I allow the characters to tell me what they would do as I write. It’s more exciting to me that way and I get to learn as I go along. My first draft is usually in chunks of around 2000 words a day, with the odd day of 5000 words; I live for the 5000 word days. Being that much in the story makes me happy.