Style and Grammar – Rethinking Black and White

Rather than starting this blog post as I always do—with a groveling apology for my long absence (I’m sorry! Really and truly, I’m sorry!)I’m just going to dive right into it.

This blog post is inspired, at least in part, by a friend I’ve been “helping” with editing her manuscript. “Helping” is in quotation marks because frankly, I’m not quite sure how helpful I’ve been.
You see, I’m a grammar Nazi. Everyone tosses that phrase around, and I think it’s lost some of its impact. Let me be clear. I am a grammar fascist.  A grammar dictator. A grammar tyrant!

Taken from the Oatmeal. This comic is genius:
Here’s my necessary disclaimer: my grammar isn’t always perfect. I still am learning new rules by the day. Certainly when I’m typing casually (like in this blog post), I slip up, either because I’m not paying attention or because I don’t care. This is a blog, people. Don’t get your knickers in a twist.
I also have to switch back-and-forth between two schools of grammar. At work, I use AP style, which is the style guidelines used by the newspaper industry here in the U.S. In the book publishing industry, most people use The Chicago Manual of Style. The differences are subtle, but they exist just the same. I know significantly more about the rules of AP style than I do Chicago Manual, and sometimes I screw them up. 
Disclaimer aside, I think my grammar in general is better than your Average Joe’s. I used to tutor kids for the writing portion of the SATs (for my non-American readers, that’s one of the two main standardized tests American kids have to take to get into university), so there was a point in my life when I could give you encyclopedic definitions of dangling modifiers and parallelism issues. Unfortunately, I’ve gotten dumber in my old age.
I like to say that for me, correcting grammar is like a nervous tic. It takes every ounce of my willpower not to say something about a missing hyphen or inconsistent use of the Oxford comma. I’ve been known to rant about the death of the double-spaced sentence. I got in trouble at my last internship for editing a senior-level executive’s email without being asked (what? The grammar was wrong!).
The truth is, incorrect grammar really takes me out of a story. My reader brain shuts down at the first sight of a comma splice, and my snobby writer brain takes over. Do I think everyone reacts the same way? No – just take a look at Motorcycle Man by Kristen Ashley. It has a 4.5 rating and 17,695 votes on Goodreads, and enough run-on sentences to make my eyes bleed.
So I’ve started to wonder … When I rip into someone’s grammar, am I helping them or am I killing their voice? How much leeway should we give writers to break grammar conventions? After all, writing is about creative expression, not what some might consider arbitrary rules. I mean, I know I sometimes purposely break the rules for effect, particularly with sentence fragments. Here’s an example from my rewrite:
The only person she had left was Denya. Denya, who couldn’t be bothered to show up at the funeral of the woman she’d watched over since birth. <–Second sentence is a fragment.
I’m having the same inner debate about style. Writing style obviously has much more flexibility than grammar (with grammar there is clear right and wrong. Not so with style), and is also much more transient. If you compare the style of a book published during the early 20th century to a book published today, they will be vastly different.
I am perhaps shockingly conventional when it comes to writing style. I try to follow modern style, which means I hate on adverbs and adjectives and flowery prose. Use similes and metaphors sparingly, the style gurus of today tell us. Don’t use rarefied words.
My literary agent definitely subscribes to modern style rules. In his latest edits, he told me to kill the word “apoplexy” because it was too unusual and pulled the reader out of the story. Same deal for “maw” (that one made me sad. I love that word). I was also told to avoid using the word like, and to stop using so many damn metaphors (the damn was from me. Harry’s much too polite to curse). For example…
What I originally wrote:
Her face, paleas milk, glistened with tears, still wet. Sam ran her thumb over her mother’s damp cheeks. The skin was cool—too cool, like all the heat had drained out of it. Her fingers ran south to the pulse at her mother’s neck, or where it should be.
Bad Sally, bad. Here’s how I was asked to change it:
Her pale faced glistened with tears. Sam ran her thumb over her mother’s damp cheeks. The skin was cool—all the heat had drained out of it. Her fingers ran south to the pulse at her mother’s neck, or where it should be.
You tell me which one is better. Personally, I think Harry’s right. He usually is.
When I review other writers’ work, I critique with the same lens that my literary agent uses on mine. I’d like to think I can still appreciate that every (good) writer has his or her own voice, and that naturally results in differences of style. But I think that writers can go too far in terms of bucking convention. I’m all for experimentation, and when it works, it works. When it doesn’t, it really doesn’t.
I also don’t think today’s style rules are totally arbitrary – it’s not like fashion where pink is in on Tuesday, and Wednesday it’s all about plaid. Adverbs are lazy. I’m not an adverb fascist – I still think they have a place in writing, and I probably use too many of them – but I do think that excessive use can distract from the story, or come across as more telling than showing. I feel the same way about similes (though I am also guilty of simile abuse). I think everyone’s writing can be made better by simplifying.
But…maybe I’m narrow-minded. Maybe by trying to enforce the style rules I’ve been taught I’m suppressing expression and creativity. I have never been a fan of flowery prose (although I think mine is somewhat flowery? Am I crazy?), and maybe I’m incapable of objectively editing a style or genre that’s so drastically different from my own.
Long story short, I’ve started to second-guess my objectivity. I think I might be a writing bully.

Planning, Planning

So I had my first official “meeting” with my literary agent Harry today (it was a phone call and not an in-person meeting, as he is based in Canada), and wow, do I have a lot of work to do. 
Remember that plot outline I was working on a few weeks ago? Yeah, probably going to be tossed. My assignment for the next two weeks is to flesh out the landscape of my world (which means I have to draw a map! Eep), put together sketches (of the written variety) of all the major characters and write the plot outline for THE ENTIRE SERIES.
Yes, that’s right. I’m planning out every single aspect of Sam, Tristan and Braeden’s world. In two weeks, I’ll know who shall live and who shall die, who shall perish by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by beast…
Oh wait, I just quoted the Old Testament. It’s a surprisingly appropriate quote.
Writing, especially writing fantasy, is a little bit like playing God. You have to create an entire world from scratch, its creatures and its people. It’s kind of fun to rule your own little universe but man, is it hard. 
I’ve mentioned before that I’m not really a planner. I wrote the first 15 chapters of Paladin without planning ANYTHING — not the characters, not the plot, not even the romance. It’s probably why the first part of my book is less focused than the rest.
I got stuck at chapter 15, and so at the advice of Eileen Gormley, co-author of The Pleasures of Winter (it’s like the 50 Shades of Ireland, but much better written) and otherwise known as Ctyolene on Wattpad, I wrote the synopsis for the rest of the story. 
I didn’t stick to the synopsis exactly–plot elements changed or happened in a different order, or new plot elements cropped up (the rupture in Braeden’s tattoo and that first kiss were completely unplanned, for example). But having it there as a guide was tremendously helpful in keeping me on track and avoiding plot holes…and probably most importantly, in avoiding writer’s block.
Speaking of plot holes, they’re a big part of why Harry says I need to plan out the entire series now. If you don’t know how the whole story is going to unfold, you might find yourself with plot issues in later books that are insurmountable. It’s also hard to use important literary devices like foreshadowing when you yourself don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s one thing when your first book is just published on Wattpad — it’s easy enough to go back and make edits. But once your first book is published in the traditional sense, making changes later is impossible.
The approach he suggested is interesting: rather than write three plot outlines for three separate books, I’m writing one long plot outline, treating it like one contiguous story. I can figure out where it makes sense to break the story into separate books afterward. 
So, depending on how much story there is to tell (I don’t know yet; I haven’t started planning), Paladin could be a 3-book series or it could be 10 (although I sincerely doubt it!). 
To that end, Harry also said not to worry about word count. As an amateur writer, pretty much everything I’ve read says that for your first novel, keep it under 100,000 words. To put it into perspective, Paladin, as it currently stands on Wattpad, is 110,000 words. 
One of my concerns has been how to add to the story the missing elements (more on that later) without also adding a significant amount of text. Well, since my agent has thrown that out the window, for the time being, I’m free to write as long and as much as I’d like. As he pointed out, some of the Harry Potter books are over 700 pages (175,000+ words). I would argue that I’m no J.K. Rowling, but I’m eager to be able to write Paladin without constraints.
And I do expect Paladin to be much, much longer. Harry told me he likes the core plot of the story (the Sam/Braeden/Tristan story arc), but it’s too narrowly focused on them. What about the politics of my world? I mention a king in passing — he’s a king in a feudal system, which means he must have some degree of real power. Why does he not have any role in the story or how events unfold? What is the dynamic between him and the High Commander? Here, Harry pointed out I’m missing out on a great opportunity to create more tension and add richness to my plot. There needs to be more going on in the world than just the conflict between the Uriel and the Paladins.
So yeah. I have to design a political system now.  Good thing I’ve got a degree in political science (unfortunate that I don’t remember a thing I learned in college beyond how to do a cartwheel…I got an A in Circus).
Harry’s other major criticism is that while Sam, Braeden and Tristan are well-developed characters, the rest of my characters are not. The story needs to stay their story, but that doesn’t mean other characters can’t have larger roles. Once again, we’ll use Harry Potter as our example — the books are focused on Harry, Hermione and Ron, but there are many, many other fully developed and memorable characters, like Dumbledore, Snape, Sirius Black, etc.
One suggestion Harry made that I latched onto immediately was regarding my little thief boy, Charlie, from Chapter 19.  He said he really connected with Charlie, but then Charlie was gone a chapter later. What if Charlie were to join Sam, Tristan and Braeden’s entourage for the rest of their journey? I love that idea.
There are a few other potential characters we discussed having a more significant role that will have a pretty significant impact on how the story unfolds, but I’m not sure how much of that conversation I want to divulge. I want you to be surprised when you read the new version of Paladin.
I will promise you this (and my agent agrees): whatever changes I make, the parts you like about Paladin will still be there. I’m adding to the plot, not taking away. Some minor things might have to change from a logic standpoint (let’s be real–how practical is it that Braeden uses knives to chop off demons’ heads? A knife is six inches long–it would take forever!), but I want to keep the heart of my story the same.
On a semi-off topic note, thank you to everyone who has been recommending Paladin to friends. After months of falling out of the top 10, Paladin has returned to the #1 spot in Fantasy and Adventure, and that’s entirely because of you. I feel like I don’t say this to you guys enough: I love you!

Traditional Publishing, Take Two


It’s just over three weeks since I made the grand declaration that I was going to self publish. And then I spoke to an editor who showed me the light that Paladin was nowhere near ready. And now I must share this update:


I’m sorry. That was immature of me. I’ve calmed down now. (NoIhaven’tI’mreallyexcitedI’msorryI’llshutup.)

Here’s how it happened, for those of you who want the juicy details–It was shortly after I had posted my last blog about aaallll the work I need to do in order to make Paladin publishing-worthy. I checked my email, and lo and behold, a literary agent appeared to have sent me an email.

I read it three times, and then a fourth for good measure. The gist of it was this: the agent had read Paladin on Wattpad and enjoyed the characters…He’d also read my blog post. Not only had he read it, he agreed: Sam is not central enough to the plot. And yet, despite what is obviously a very significant flaw, he saw the potential in my writing, and expressed interest in working with me.

As every writer should do, I did my research on the agency to make sure that they were a legitimate agency (there are a lot of sketchy agencies out there, folks. Predators & Editors has a handy list of those you can trust and those you cannot. You also want to make sure the agency has worked with successful authors and has made recent sales to established publishing companies). When everything checked out, I spoke at length with the agent on the phone to get a sense of what I could expect, and what he would expect from me.

What sold me was this: he is what is called an “editorial agent.” The primary reason to get a literary agent is because they are the gatekeepers to the world of traditional publishing. The Big Six (now big five) publishers and most successful indie publishers do not accept unsolicited manuscripts. So the only way to get your book’s foot in the door (er, page on the desk?) is through a literary agent. Once a publisher shows interest, the literary agent then helps you negotiate the most favorable deal possible–the biggest advance, the best royalty rate, etc.

But some agents–not all–also serve as editors. Before they begin shopping your manuscript to publishers, they help you get it in the best shape possible. It’s in their interest, too–they want to shop a book that they think will sell, because that’s how they get their commission.

Before I educated myself on the publishing world (and trust me, I still need a lot more education), I thought once you got a literary agent, that was it. Wham bam, thank you ma’am, here’s your publishing deal.

…That’s not quite how it works. Judging from my initial conversation with the agent, I have a lot of work ahead of me. The big changes I brought up last blog post–those are still happening. We’ve already discussed other major edits he would like me to make, and some of those need to be preempted by research. I don’t even know the half of it. I’ve likely got months of work to do before he even begins talking to publishers.

In other words, I’m a big step closer, but I’m not there yet.

There’s also the matter of the sequel. We discussed, and both he and I think that a trilogy makes the most sense. But what that means is that I have to plan out (e.g. outline) the whole series before I finish the first book! I’m not much of a planner in my writing, but now I’m going to become one.

As the agent (now my agent–I signed the contract this morning) said to me, there are no guarantees in publishing. But despite this caveat, I cannot help but be super excited to work with him and get my writing to the next level. Excited is the wrong word…I’m positively giddy. I told the agent that I wanted to work with someone who would not only foster my writing career, but foster my writing itself. He’s got a wealth of writing and editorial experience, and I’m confident he’ll make me a better writer…and Paladin a better book.

To celebrate with you guys (because in all honesty, I would be nowhere without your support), I’m going to post an extended epilogue of Paladin on Wattpad. It will likely never see the light of day in the actually published book *crossing my fingers*, but hopefully you will enjoy it regardless. And in case you haven’t checked it out, I’ve started posting another “story” (I use the word story loosely – it’s autobiographical) called “First Kisses“. As a forewarning, it’s highly inappropriate (I’m rating it PG13 so mobile readers can find it, but it really should be rated R), and because it’s based on my life, there are no swords or sorcery, as unfortunately, my invitation to Hogwarts got lost in the mail…The cover by Prisim is below. No obligation to read it, as I don’t expect it to be everyone’s cup of tea. Cheers!