I did NOT see these edits coming…

If you’re reading the series documenting my journey though Stunk and White’s Elements of Style, you’ll know I was recently made aware of a handy piece of editing to be undertaken on my manuscript: talking in the positive form and my use of the word not.

Screen Shot 2015-11-29 at 08.46.05As writers, we all know redundant words such as that and very can (and should be) cut during the editing process. Until I read S&W’s book, however, I had no idea how also removing the word not can tighten up one’s prose. Writing in a more positive tone has a wonderful effect on the whole feel of a book… unless of course the mood you’re going for is one of darkness, hesitation and negativity; in that case let words like not, would, could, should, may or might come raining down. If not, dump them.

So, after reading this rule I used the ‘find’ tool and plodded though my manuscript looking for instances where I could replace negative phrases with more positive ones. I found 277 uses of the word not… that’s right, 277.

Here are just a few examples of the changes I made:

Continue reading

“I cannot abide dialogue attribution,” he uttered angrily…

If the over-use of adverbs is one of writing’s biggest crimes, then dialogue attribution has to be up there with murder (and can easily murder a good novel). Don’t get me wrong, there is a place for adverbs in good writing, but that place is small, exclusive, and should be reserved for only the most upstanding and respectable adverbs. But – and it’s a bigger but than Kim Kardashian’s – when we come to adding an adverb to dialogue, well then that adverb must be really, really special to be allowed a place on the page.

For the most part, I like to talk about writing on this blog. Generally, I try to keep to what I think should be done when writing and how I personally like to do things… even though these two don’t often agree with each other. I don’t usually like to moan about the craft of writing, but sometimes, just sometimes, I get so cross I simply have to put pen to paper (so to speak). Continue reading

Colons, dashes, and broken sentences…

And so here is the next instalment of my series that looks to apply every single rule from Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style to my manuscript. Today, rules 6, 7 & 8.

6. Do not break sentences in two.

The Elements of Style, Strunk and WhiteWhat S&W are saying here is to be careful with where you put a full-stop. Ok, so it sounds elementary and their example below is really just a case of bad writing:

I met them on a Cunard liner many years ago. Coming home from Liverpool to New York.

See. Just bad writing.

They do, however, mention the clipping of a sentence if a certain emphasis is warranted:

Again and again he called out. No reply.

I do this quite a lot in my writing. S&W’s advise on the matter is that it’s fine in dialogue, but when used in narrative one must ensure the emphasis is warranted lest a clipped sentence seem merely a blunder in syntax or in punctuation.

I’ll do that. Thanks. 

Continue reading

Parenthetic expressions, and what I learned from Tolstoy…

And so here is the next instalment of my series that looks to apply every single rule from Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style to my manuscript. Rules 3 to 5.


3. Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas.

This is something that I have always done. Continue reading

A journey through The Elements of Style: Part one…

So I’ve just finished reading Stephen King’s On Writing, and yes I know, I’m a bit late to the game on that one, but hey, I got there in the end.

First of all, I must say that it’s a brilliant book and well worth reading if, like me, you are in the infancy of your novel-writing adventure. I was given On Writing by my wonderful wife as a birthday present, along with Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. King mentions this book in his introduction, obviously holding it in high esteem, and then goes on to quote it many times throughout his own book. In truth he calls it the only book on writing that isn’t bullshit – his words, not mine.

Screen Shot 2015-08-04 at 14.23.57And so I have decided to apply The Elements of Style to my manuscriptblogging about as I go. I shall take each of the 43-or-so rules, covering a number in each new post, depending on how much work needs to be done for each rule. Continue reading

Imitation is the highest form of flattery

IMG_1207During a short weekend break recently, my family and I went to the beautiful city of Edinburgh where – as it turns out – Harry Potter was written. I don’t know that. For breakfast one day, we found ourselves in the exact cafe (The Elephant House) where J.K. sat, drank coffee, ate croissants and penned the first few Potter novels. My girls even wrote on the toilet wall – yes, you are encouraged to do this.

Anyway, while this is all very cool and probably worth a blog post in its own right,  that’s not why I’m posting this…

IMG_1203Quite a while back, I wrote a piece about how I like to find names on gravestones. Naturally, I thought this was a novel way of filling one’s novel with authentic-sounding character names. Particularly as I was after historical sounding names.

Well – as it also turns out – there is a graveyard in Edinburgh where some of the headstones bear the names of characters from the Harry Potter books. Why? Because apparently J.K. Rowling did exactly the same thing as me.

So, all I’m going to say is that I’m amazed J.K. reads my blog, and I’m flattered that she decided to copy my idea.

I shall be sending her the bill for my cut of this intellectual property in the fullness of time…

Thanks for reading (that means you too Ms Rowling)

What DO agents see in your manuscript?

So, I have just been tweaking my first three chapters prior to embarking on another round of querying agents. Naturally, this involved doing all the usual stuff that gets done at this juncture: swapping adjectives, tightening up the text, removing adverbs, changing ‘that’ to ‘which’ and then ‘which’ back to ‘that’ again before eventually getting rid of the ‘that’ because it’s unnecessary. You know the drill.

Anyway, apart from making the changes that really need to happen, I found myself scrutinising the text perhaps a trifle more than is required at this point in the proceedings. For example, I changed the name of a starship from HMS Clevland simply because the word that follows HMS Cleveland  is ‘and’. And that didn’t really work.

Yes, yes, I know this may be finicky and a little over the top… but that’s exactly what got me thinking on the question posed in the title: What do agents see in a manuscript? More to the point, are all of these little changes really worth the effort? I mean, I’ve been rejected by about 30 agents so far (which is only to be expected) but will minuscule tweaks of my work really make a difference? I’m sure that many agents don’t even get past the query letter and synopsis before they reject a submission. Fair enough; they’re busy people with a slush pile the size of corruption allegations against FIFA. Of those that do actually read what we’ve sent them, is it really that important that the work is as impeccable as can be, including those teeny-weeny details such as an ‘and’ following Cleveland. Aren’t any books accepted by a publisher going to be given a whopping great dose of the red-pen treatment by an in-house editor anyway?

The answer to this is no doubt, yes. But then again, do all of the tiny adjustments we make between sending stuff off in queries actually have an impact. I believe they do. Granted, when an agent reads those proverbial “first three chapters”, they’re looking primarily at the marketability, the concept, the voice, etc. But I do think that the general finish and sheen is important. Even if an editor is going to have a go at your pride and joy later on on the process, it must still blow the agent away by how much it has been polished.

Or should it…?

Agents are astute readers. They can tell when a huge amount of work has gone into a draft, and this must have an impact on their overall view of you as an author.

Or does it…?

Oh, I don’t know. Anyone who does know, please get in touch.

In the meantime, I shall carry on querying with the very best that I can offer… only to subsequently refine that very best that I can offer when I go back, re-read it and realise this wasn’t in fact the best I can offer and start making more changes. Circle of life.

Thanks for reading.

P.S. Sorry if you read this thinking that I was going to impart some wisdom as to what agents see in your manuscript. I wasn’t. The title wasn’t rhetorical and I really am seeking the answer to this question.