Writing Collective Classroom
Fiction Writing: Grammar and U.S. Publishing Standards (Part I)
At Fictionista Workshop we hope to provide authors with the tools they need to succeed in their fictional literary works. In this lesson I will focus on ways to help you use proper grammar in accordance with the U.S. publishing standard (which is The Chicago Manual of Style). During our classroom sessions you will gather the tools you will need to present your manuscript to an agent or publisher with confidence. This is part I; there are more grammar classrooms to come.
Parts of Speech.
Sometimes it is best to start at the beginning. First we will cover the different parts of speech. You would be surprised how many people couldn’t tell you what a verb is! If you already know the parts of speech, move on to tenses.
1) Nouns: person, place, thing, or concept. There are two types of nouns: common and proper. Examples of common nouns are couch, grain, family, father, and cash. Examples of proper nouns are names specific to a person, place, or thing.
2) Pronouns: refers to or stands in for a noun or another pronoun. Examples of pronouns are I, you, he she, me, him, my you’re his, theirs, myself, yourself, this, these, who, whoever, anyone, each other, etc.
3) Verbs: actions or states of being. Examples ofz verbs are do, be, have, shall, should, etcetera. There are also active verbs (explains what a noun does), passive verbs (tells what is done to a noun), and linking verbs (tells what a noun is, seems, becomes, looks, or appears). A verb is an essential part of a sentence.
4) Adjectives: provide information about nouns and pronouns. They can describe, point to, or tell the quantity of nouns and pronouns. Examples are big, helpful, each, few, etcetera.
5) Adverbs. Answers one of the following questions: When? Where? Why? How Under what conditions? and To what extent?
6) Conjunctions. Connect parts of a sentence using words like and, but, either, or, etc.
7) Prepositions. Convey details about relationships. Examples are beneath, in, off, on, past, over, etcetera.
8) Interjections. Express emotion (and can stand alone). Examples are: Ha!, Wow!, Ouch!, and Ugh!
This part of the classroom today might be an eye-opener for some of you. Authors break the rules on tenses all the time, but it is not an attractive trait. So let’s go straight to this part of the lesson.
1) Past tense.
a) Simple past: They swam today. They did not swim today.
b) Past progressive: He was going outside.
c) Past perfect: Everyone had left when I shouted.
d) Past perfect progressive: We had been resting before you woke us.
2) Present tense.
a) Simple present: He runs every afternoon. He does not run far.
b) Present progressive: They are running tomorrow.
c) Present perfect: She has never eaten cereal.
d) Present perfect progressive: He has been racing cars for three years.
3) Future tense using “will.”
a) Simple future: He will dance soon. He will not (won’t) be awful.
b) Future progressive: They will be meeting at church at three.
c) Future perfect: They will have accomplished their task by now.
d) Future perfect progressive: They will have been dancing for thirty minutes.
4) When to use progressive form.
a) Do not use the progressive form when the verb is expressing senses, preference, emotion, thought, or verbs of possession, appearance, or inclusion (own, possess, seem, etc.). Use simple tenses. (Basically remove the “ing” at the end of most verbs and replace it with “ed,” or the past/present alternative.)
b) Progressive form should only be used to show an action in progress, an activity in progress over time, or speaking about a specific time in the past!
5) Tense shifts. Avoid using multiple tenses in the same sentences, paragraphs, and, 90% of the time, in your manuscript (this does not include dialogue).
Active voice vs. passive.
Active voice is when the subject is the one doing the action, and the sentence tells who is doing what. (I wrote this classroom lesson.) The passive voice explains what is done to the subject of the sentence. (This classroom lesson was written by me.)
1) When to use passive voice. Passive voice should be avoided unless the subject of your sentence is unknown or irrelevant (Those monkeys are one of a kind. Four of them will be returned to the wild.—it doesn’t matter who returns them to the wild), or when it’s used to establish a topic chain from one clause or sentence to another (She had a lot of friends, probably hundreds, and most of them worship her most of the time. Three of them will be considered for the maid-of-honor role.).
2) Why active voice is the smart way to go. When you use passive voice excessively, your writing becomes detached and weighted. Active voice will make your writing clearer and more sound.
Everything covered here is the U.S. publishing standard. If you don’t like or agree with these rules of punctuation, then you will most likely be skipped over by agents and publishers. It takes a lot of work to edit someone’s manuscript, so agents and publishers search for manuscripts that need little to no extra work. Some authors are very stubborn about “their” way of writing, though, and that will be their downfall. So please understand that I share this with everyone to help them.
1) Periods, question marks, and exclamation points. I’m not going to explain each of these.
a) There is only ONE SPACE between sentences. ONE. UNO. SINGULAR. I don’t care what you learned in school. Two spaces is NOT publishing standard! Two spaces are only to be used on typewriters. Comprender?
b) Question marks are used at the end of each question. Therefore, if a question is in the middle of a sentence, you will either write the question as a new sentence, or use a sentence disrupter like hyphens or parenthesis. Regardless, you still must use the question mark at the end of the question. (Sometimes I wondered if he was staring at her—or was he staring at me?—I couldn’t see.)
c) Only rule for exclamation points? Don’t over-use them. Actually, if you can manage to avoid them even better. (Though I must admit I break this rule often.)
2) General comma rules.
a) Yay commas (this means when to use them)!
i) Before words that connect independent clauses (and, but, or, nor, so, for, yet).
ii) After most introductory words, phrases, or clauses.
iii) When you have extra information in the middle of your sentence. (Lucy, a story editor, works late every night.)
iv) Expressions or explanatory inserts. (Lucy, however, only asks for chocolate in return.)
v) To separate three or more items in a series. I want to stress this because many people forget to add the last comma. THIS IS WRONG! I REPEAT—THIS IS WRONG: She sat in the vehicle, turned the key in the ignition and slammed the car in gear. CORRECT: She sat in the vehicle, turned the key in the ignition, and slammed the car in gear. See the difference? GOOD!
vi) When you have too many adjectives together. (She was absolutely, incredibly, and unbelievably sexy.) Note: not all descriptive words end in “ly.” And, actually, you should stay away from using too many “ly” words.
vii) After a verb (or speech tag) introduces a quotation.
b) Bad comma (do not use commas here)!
i) Never between a subject and verb.
ii) Never before a compound structure that isn’t an independent clause. NO COMMA: She accepted the manuscript and edited it graciously. COMMA: She sent in her manuscript for query, but the publisher refused. (Both of those are correct.)
iii) Never AFTER the conjunction connecting the two independent clauses. UNESS immediately after the conjunction is “extra information.” Example: I told him not to bite me, and, no matter what I said, he decided he would anyway.
iv) Never before a clause beginning in that. That’s an easy one! NO COMMAS BEFORE “THAT”!
v) Not before or after essential information. (If you want to put in a comma, take the two parts of the sentence and switch their places. Does it read the same? Yes? Then NO COMMA usually.) Example: The frat boy who frisked the girl became a drunk. No comma!
vi) Not between a verb and its action.
vii) Not after “such as”—I mean it. NO COMMA THERE!
3) Semicolons. A semicolon is kind of like a not-so-serious period. Really. It provides the separation needed to continue related or additional thoughts without using the finality of a period.
a) Semicolons - yes!
i) Between independent clauses that aren’t joined by a conjunction.
ii) Between clauses or items in a series containing internal commas. Example: Our insatiable need to write, as discussed at Fictionista often, is becoming problematic; yet us ladies, such writing machines, refuse to stop.
b) Semicolons - no!
i) They are NOT interchangeable with colons. Not ever.
ii) Never use after an introductory phrase or independent clause, even if it is long.
iii) Don’t over-use semicolons.
4) Colons. They signal anticipation. A colon makes the reader aware that what follows will define, illustrate, or rename what they just read. Always use a space after a colon.
a) Colons - yes!
i) Use after an independent clause to illustrate a concept but providing a listing of a series of examples. (Remember to put a comma between each item you list—even before the last one!)
ii) Use after an independent clause to introduce an explanation. Example: I understand what many do not: publishers actually check this stuff!
iii) Use a colon followed by a capital letter when introducing a rule or principle. Example: New rule: Fictionista Ladies must take a vacation . . . soon.
iv) A colon can introduce dialogue or quotations when not integrated into the structure of the sentence and are not introduced with a speech tag like “say.”
b) Colons - no!
i) Never use directly after a verb.
ii) Same for a preposition.
iii) And after for example, especially, or including.
i) Use –’s for possessive nouns (not plural!). The only time this is different is when a persons’ name ends in an –s, then you place the apostrophe after the –s’. UNLESS the name requires an extra –s. Example: Nicholas’s stereo was turned up loud. Compared to: Phillips’ ego was huge. The reason for the difference is how it’s said. Nicholas’s = Nic-hol-as-es—there is another syllable added, therefore you use –s’s. Phillips’ = Phil-lip-s— no extra syllable, therefore it is –s’.
ii) When a noun is plural and possessive, you add it after the –s’. Example: Actresses’ lives.
iii) In contracted words to replace missing letters. (Don’t, it’s, they’re, he’ll.) But not “its” when it’s plural.
b) Apostrophe – no!
i) Don’t use an apostrophe for the plurals of nouns. (Except for very rare occasions like plural letters of the alphabet, plural forms of a word referred to as the word itself.)
ii) No apostrophes in the plural forms of numbers, acronyms, or abbreviations.
iii) Never use apostrophes to signal the plural of common nouns or personal names.
iv) Only use it in “let’s” when you are referring to “let us.”
v) BIG NO-NO: HERS, ITS, OURS, YOURS, THEIRS—No apostrophe! None.
vi) None for plural names.
vii) None for indicating inanimate objects have possession.
6) Quotation rules. And I have a lot of them.
a) Single vs. double. I know this varies from different countries, but like I said above, this is for the U.S. Single quotation marks only go INSIDE double quotation marks. Using single quotations in your writing outside a quote is WRONG.
b) Speech tags. I will only say—er, um, type this once! When you have dialogue, and then who said it and how; that is a speech tag! He said, she whispered, he griped, she snapped. Each of them explain who the speaker is and how they said it. Even if it is just the word “said.”
i) CORRECT: “I heard that,” he said.
ii) INCORRECT: “I heard that.” He said.
iii) INCORRECT: “I heard that,” He said.
iv) INCORRECT: “I heard that.” he said.
v) CORRECT: “I can’t believe it.” I laughed.
vi) INCORRECT: “I can’t believe it,” I laughed.
vii) Back to the above . . . “I laughed” is not a speech tag. “Laughed” is not how the words were said. The words were spoken. PERIOD.
viii) CORRECT: “Say cheese,” I said. “Stop that!” –Two separate sentences, therefore “Say cheese,” I said. was a complete sentence. “Stop that!” was a new sentence, therefore a capital letter to represent the new sentence.
ix) INCORRECT: “Say cheese,” I said, “stop that.” You need a period after “said” because that is the end of the sentence. The stop.
x) If the quoted part is more than one paragraph, you do not enclose the middle paragraph(s) with quotations, you just open the next paragraph with quotations. EXAMPLE: “Dialogue. (PARAGRAPH) “Continue dialogue.” Notice no end quote. You will put an end quote when the speaker is done talking.
c) Punctuation inside and out of quotes.
i) Commas and periods ALWAYS go inside the quotation marks.
(1) CORRECT: My father never called me a “genius,” and I’m certain . . .
(2) INCORRECT: My father never called me a “genius”, and
(3) CORRECT: My father never called me a “genius.”
(4) INCORRECT: My father never called me a “genius”.
ii) Question marks and exclamation points only go inside quotes when the ? or ! pertains to the quote.
(1) CORRECT: Did he just say “Santa”?
(2) INCORRECT: Did he just say “Santa?”
(3) CORRECT: “What was your name?”
(4) INCORRECT: “What was your name”?
iii) Don’t use quotations around indirect quotes.
iv) Don’t put quotations at the beginning and end of long indented quotations.
v) Do not put quotations marks around the names of parts of long works or unpublished works.
7) Dashes. EM(—) and EN(– ) dashes.
a) EN dashes (–) are only used to show time periods. Example: 6 – 7 pm. 1908 – 1970. There are always spaces on each side of the EN dash. Using an EN dash in your writing in place of an EM dash is WRONG.
b) EM dashes (—) are used to suggest a sudden change in a sentence, or an interruption. There are NO spaces before or after the EM dash. EM dash can also be used to show abrupt stops in dialogue, or internal dialogue. They are also preferable over a comma for appositive phrases where commas are used.
8) Ellipses. This is something that authors either get right or completely wrong. An ellipsis is used to show a thought unfinished, spoken words that trailed off, or long pauses.
a) Don’t over-use ellipses. While editing, take into consideration how many times you use the “dot, dot, dot.”
b) There is a space before the ellipses, after, and between each period. If it ends in quotes, there is no space between the ellipses and the end quote. If a paragraph ends with “ . . . “ than you add a fourth dot. (Example: I didn’t know what to think. . . .) A period at the end without a space to end the sentence, and three dots to show that the thought was never finished. If ellipses are only for pause, then there must be a space between every dot; before, in the middle, and at the end. (Example: I just can’t believe . . . it.)
i) INCORRECT: I just can’t believe…it.
ii) INCORRECT: I just can’t believe… it.
iii) INCORRECT: I didn’t know what to think…
I’ll end the classroom lesson here. Remember that this is only part I for grammar. I hope that you found the advice and ideas provided in the classroom helpful.
Laura Kreitzer on behalf of Fictionista Workshop