>Apologies for the late post. This past week has been an adventure — not — in trying to get online. I’m about to make another call to tech support once I manage to publish this post.
Today’s post is going to be a bit different from what I usually post on Sundays. It stems from something I’ve noticed with a few of the submissions we’ve received during this submission period at the last at NRP. So, with my editor’s hat on, here goes. . . .
Many years ago, back when we wrote with arcane machines called IBM Selectric typewriters — no, I don’t remember stone tablets. I’m not THAT old, although I swear we used ink and quills in grade school ;-p — and long before computers were something every family had multiples of, I took freshmen English at Baylor University in Waco, TX. Like many freshmen, I hadn’t realized how different college was going to be when I walked into that first English class. After all, it looked pretty much like my honors high school English classes. There were about 30 of us, all sitting at our desks, waiting for the professor.
So we sat there and waited, looking around, taking stock of those in class with us. Then, as the bell rang, a woman we’d assumed was simply another student stood and walked to the front of the class. The moment she opened her mouth, we realized things were about to be very different from high school. Long story short, after introducing herself and finding out who had come to class without the assigned textbook, she passed out a single sheet of paper listing what to do to flunk a paper and, therefore, the class.
Two comma faults, you flunk the paper. Two split infinitives, you flunk. Two dangling modifiers, you flunk. Three misspelled words, you flunk. There were more. Remember, it was a page of this, all single spaced. To add insult to injury, any combination of the list meant you flunked the paper. Then, just to make sure we were a bundle of nerves for the rest of the term, if you didn’t have a “C” average on the last three papers of the term, you flunked the class.
Remember, this was back before the days of being able to “save” a document and go back in and make simple corrections. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention she didn’t want to see white-out or erasures either.
What does that have to do with publishing today? A couple of things — and yes, that violated another of her rules. I just committed one of her biggest “no-nos”. I wrote a sentence fragment. — The first is that, as writers, we need a working knowledge of the rules of writing. It doesn’t matter how good your story is if you turn off an agent or editor because your grammar and punctuation becomes a distraction because it is so bad.
The problem is that our schools, on the whole, aren’t teaching grammar any more. Then there’s the reality that the rules have changed. Do you put a comma before the “and” in a list of three of more objects (Mary, Fred and Tom went to school.). Do you set off “too” with commas when using it as you would “also”? (That, too, is a good question. I want to go too.)
But it goes beyond the simple rules of grammar. Back in the days before personal computers of every size, shape and flavor, we were told to do a single underline of words we wanted to be italicized and to double underline words that were to be put in bold. Internal dialogue was underlined. Telepathic conversations were set off by either single quotes (or apostrophes) or by colons. It worked because that’s what the typesetters were used to.
Today, if you use those methods, you date yourself. The problem comes in that very few style guides put out by agents or publishers tell you not to underline. It’s just something you’re supposed to know. Making matters worse, not all agents and publishers have made the move from old-style to new.
Then there’s the latest debate. Do you put one or two spaces after a period. Based on some of the posts I’ve seen about this, you’d think it was an earth-shattering issue. It’s not. In fact, as far as I’m concerned, it’s a non-issue. Why? Because in this day and age of e-books and some authors or publishers using non-standard fonts, sometimes you need the extra spacing. As an author just submitting a manuscript for consideration, the number of spaces you put at the end of the sentence is the one thing most editors could care less about — as long as you aren’t putting in more than a couple.
So, where is all this going? Simply put, know the rules. Know that plural nouns need plural verbs. Know the tenses. Know how to decline verbs. Know basic sentence structure. It also means you need to know the rules of each individual agent or publisher you are submitting to. Check to see if they have a style guide posted somewhere. If not, check their blogs to see what books they refer to most often. Do they like Strunk & White? The Chicago Manual of Style? Or is there something else they keep on their desk for reference? If there is, get a copy and keep it right there with your dictionary and thesaurus. It will come in handy. Trust me on this.
Most of all, you need to know when it’s okay to break the rules.
Just as it’s okay to use accents and local vernacular to give your reader insights into your characters — as long as they don’t become a distraction — it’s okay to break the rules. Again, as long as it doesn’t become a distraction. When the mechanics of the writing detract from the story, there’s a problem. Like it or not, fair or not, when that happens, most editors and agents will pass on the manuscript.