“What do You Mean?” she asked.

I’ve noticed a disturbing trend lately as I read material for my critique group, in my capacity as a submissions reader for eFiction Noir and eFiction Sci-Fi magazines, and in reading books to review. Well, it’s disturbing to me, the Punctuation Queen. Most likely, the rest of you don’t particularly care–but you should, if not for the reason that, perhaps, one day I’ll be reading your work. [Insert evil laugh here.]

No, seriously, I’m finding that a surprising number of people don’t know how to punctuate dialogue. Here are a few examples of the incorrect punctuation; the sentences themselves I made up:

“What do you mean,” she asked with a frown?

“What do you mean?,” she asked, with a frown.

“What do you mean?” she asked? With a frown.

“What do you mean?” asked, Jane, frowning?

“I know what you mean” said, Jane.

“I know what you mean.” said Jane.

I hope you see where each of the above needs to be corrected. If not, here’s how you punctuate a question and a statement in dialogue (in most instances):

“What do you mean?” she asked, with a frown.

“That’s what I meant,” she said, with a smile.

Or a variation:

With a frown, she asked, “What do you mean?”

With a smile, she said, “That’s what I meant.”

The latter correction also employs a little variety in your dialogue structure. You can get a little tired of a constant string of “she said” “he said” and so on. Flipping the tag to the beginning is a good way to break up a chunk of dialogue.

“What’s a tag?” you ask.

A dialogue tag is what you put after the line of dialogue: “said” or “asked” plus the noun or pronoun–like a mini-sentence. And, trust me, “said” or “asked” are your dialogue tag friends. Use them well and frequently, but don’t substitute things that aren’t dialogue tags.

“What do you mean?” he frowned.

Exactly that–“frowned” is not a dialogue tag. You say words, you ask words, but you don’t frown words. You may say or ask as you frown, but some verbs just aren’t dialogue tags. And if you limit yourself to the simple tags of “said” or “asked,” that frees you up to do some showing and not telling.

For example, you could write: “You don’t love me,” she pouted.

Any of us who have children or grandchildren know what a pout looks like, but why not “show” us the pout by describing it. Is it joking, how sincere is it, it is coy?

Her lower lip protruded as she frowned and blinked away non-existent tears. “You don’t love me,” she said.

See how much more we learned about the dynamic between the two speakers with a description of the pout?

Anyway, I digressed a bit from punctuating dialogue, but, well, these things needed to be said. Because most of my previous experience was as an editor, I often get bogged down in the bad or lack of punctuation. That means the story drops a few notches in quality for me.

Now, if I see one comma out-of-place, I won’t quibble, but when bad punctuation, especially for something as fundamental to writing as dialogue, is consistent, that tells me the writer doesn’t really care about his or her work, that the concept of “getting published fast” has won out over good writing.

What’s a good punctuation reference? The Chicago Manual of Style covers just about everything you need for writing. If you’re an AP Manual fan, switch. The AP Manual is for magazine or newspaper writing, where the punctuation, in particular, is different. The CMS is what most editors of literary magazines prefer. Otherwise, a decent college grammar handbook will do. Many writers I know like Garner’s Modern American Usage, which may be more up-to-date than an old college handbook. Usage and preferred punctuation do change, after all.

Pull out something you’ve been working on, and take a look at your dialogue. Is it punctuated correctly? Are your dialogue tags really tags? Are there opportunities to show more and tell less?

Story Cubes Challenge – Weeks 12 and 13

A trip to see some family in New England precluded writing a story for Week 12 of the Story Cubes Challenge, then along came the prompt for Week 13 in the midst of a lot of  house- and car-related issues. The result is you get a backwards two-fer–one story from two prompts.

I’ve written stories about the beginning of both Mai Fisher’s and Alexei Bukharin’s careers, so here’s a story about the end. The story is based on the actual arrest of Serbian General Ratko Mladic, who’d been hiding in plain sight in Serbia for more than fifteen years after his indictment as a war criminal for the massacre of Bosnian Muslim men and boys near the U.N. Safe Area of Srebrenica in July 1995. Several stories in my collection, Blood Vengeance, deal with this event, the largest incident of genocide in Europe since World War II.

The character Vojislav Ranovesic is from an unpublished novel of mine entitled Self-Inflicted Wounds. It’s also based on actual events in the late 1990’s and 2000 surrounding the murder of dozens of associates of and government officials for Slobodan Milosevic. Mai and Alexei go in to try and find out who is behind the murders, and Ranovesic is the “one good cop left in Yugoslavia” whose help they enlist.

Here are the two rolls of the cubes:

Week 12

Week 13

And here’s what I saw:

Week 12 l. to r. –  scales/justice; baseball/hit out of the park; up against a wall/pushing; eating; key; dancing; falling down the stairs; keyhole/lock; hand-in-hand/romance.

Week 13 l. to r. –  crying; thinking/thought; question/inquiry; present/giving a present; tree; carrying/burden; kicking a ball/soccer; laughing/happy; lightning/lightning bolt.

The story is “26 May 2011,” and if you don’t see the link in the title, hover your cursor over the Spy Flash tab above and select it from the drop-down menu.

If you’d like to try the Story Cubes Challenge, pick a prompt from the left, write a story of any length, and post a link to it on Jennie Coughlin’s blog.

Friday Fictioneers – Being Creative at the Car Repair Shop

It’s been one of those weeks where few, if any, opportunities to write have been presented or made–more like a week of Friday the 13th’s. Monday was a travel day. Tuesday was one of those days where you rue home ownership: A plumbing issue and meeting with the insurance adjuster for the storm damage to the roof. Wednesday was phone-calling to arrange roof repairers and set appointments for plumbing estimates, then conducting part of an interview for a newspaper article. Thursday was roof repair, receiving plumbing estimates, baby-sitting, and the second part of the article interview.

And that brings us to today, Friday, as I sit at the car repair shop because both driver-side windows will go down but won’t come back up. At least they have free Wi-Fi because the inspiration for today’s Friday Fictioneers’ story came to me about ten minutes before I left the house.

The link to read other Friday Fictioneers is below my story, “After The Rapture.” If you don’t see the link on the title, hover your cursor over the Friday Fictioneers’ tab above and select “After The Rapture” from the drop down menu.

On the Road Again…

Unless something in the Providence, RI, Airport inspires me to blog about “writing, the writing life, and the journey to publication,” today’s post could be delayed on account of exhaustion (3.5 hours sleep; Note to self: stop going to visit the ex-inlaws.) or being on the road.

Tomorrow. Maybe. Stay tuned.

Friday Fictioneers Time!

Today’s photo is called “Outside Pecos” and was taken by Amanda Gray. It was a spooky picture, and, yeah, I went there and maybe a little beyond.

To read today’s story, “Price of Passage,” click on the title. If you don’t see the link, hover your cursor over the Friday Fictioneers tab above and select “Price of Passage” from the drop-down menu.

To enjoy other Friday Fictioneers’ stories, click on “Links in Collection” below and have a good read. I suspect Ms. Gray’s photo inspired a lot of creepiness.

The Dark and Stormy Nights of First Lines

This past Friday evening, when something called a “derecho” blew through the mid-Atlantic, “It was a dark and stormy night” would have been an apt title.

How’s that for a first line? Would you read on after reading that? Well, obviously, you are, so….

As writers we’re taught everything has to be a hook–from that twenty-five-word “elevator pitch” to a first line that grabs the reader and forces him or her to read the rest. The first line, especially when you’re submitting your work, has to be something that catches the reader’s or agent’s eye, something that will stop him or her from tossing your manuscript on the slush pile.

A first line can be versatile. It can be dialogue or straight prose. If you’re James Joyce, it can be inarticulate. If you’re Charles Dickens, it can almost tell a story on its own. If you’re Toni Morrison, it can take your breath away.

In some ways, as we edit and revise, we neglect our first lines, until we get feedback that says, “You know, the first line just didn’t grab me.” Grab. That’s the key word. That first line has to both be a “stopper”–something that makes the reader stop and ponder–and inspiring–something that compels the reader to read the next line, and the next, and the next. It’s not so easy as it seems.

The first line that tops many a list of “best’s” is “Call me Ishmael,” from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Short, to the point, imperative tense–you call me Ishmael. Now, had this not been required reading, I’m not sure if that line alone would have made me read further, but I’m glad I did.

This post was inspired, in part, by coming across the American Book Review’s “100 Best First Lines from Novels.” These first lines have done their work well because as I scanned the list of best first lines and recognized books I’ve read (I was surprised how many), the rest of the book came quickly to mind.

I saw “It was a pleasure to burn.” and remembered just how Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 impacted me when I read it as a teen. I loved books, so a world where books were burned because they were obsolete was one I had to explore.

I saw “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.” and remembered exactly how difficult it was to work my way through Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce. This was another required read, but I had hoped to explore my Irish side with it. Oh, well.

I saw “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” and remembered the only Hemingway work I could stomach, The Old Man and The Sea. I remembered I felt as if I were in the boat with the Old Man and felt his frustration as he futilely beat away the sharks from his magnificent catch.

My personal favorite first line is “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” (Bet you didn’t see that coming, did ya?) I have read and re-read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice many times, and each time that first line makes me smile in anticipation of what is to come.

Close behind Austen is another Brit, George Orwell, with “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” 1984, more than anything, shaped my political views. The first independent clause in this first line bears a striking resemblance to the “dark and stormy night” opening you’re supposed to avoid. Likely, if Orwell had put the period after April, few would have read on. It’s the second clause that’s the hook, the grabber: “…and the clocks were striking thirteen.” Six simple words that tell you dystopia is about to follow. Pretty masterful.

Taking a look at that 100 Best First Lines list is instructive because the examples run the gamut from modern literature to a few centuries past. You can see the evolution of the first line, and, believe me, what was a grabber in the eighteenth century is very different from something modern. And yet, the same. All in all, it will renew your love of language, but, more importantly, it will make you focus on your first lines to make certain they “hook.”

What’s your favorite first line from a novel or short story? Have you tried to imitate it? What makes you want to read more?

(By the way, American Book Review also has a list of best last lines of novels. Another post, perhaps?)


Story Cubes Challenge – Week 11

In just one more week, the Rory’s Story Cube Challenge will be three months old. Time flies when you’re having fun.

In a past story, I delved into how Alexei Bukharin came to The Directorate (“Desert Nights and Weeping Flowers“), so I thought it was time to get a glimpse into why Mai Fisher chose her life’s work. This story also gave me an opportunity to explain why espionage intrigues me–the casting aside of morals and norms to assure a country’s integrity may seem a contradiction in terms, but it’s beyond interesting to learn whether a newly minted spy can handle these “shades of gray.”

So, initially, I was going to name the story “Shades of Gray,” for reasons that are obvious when you read it, but I don’t want to imply any connection with a current “book” that’s all the rage for some reason I don’t quite grasp, Fifty Shades of Gray. The story does end up being the longest (at about 4,300 words) of all the offerings in “Spy Flash” and probably doesn’t count as flash fiction at all. Oh well.

Here’s the Week 11 roll of the cubes:

And here’s what I saw: (l. to r.) building/hotel; reading; footprint; credit card; die/roll of the die; fork in the road/at a crossroads; reaching/out of reach; moon; and house.

Here’s the link to “Family Matters.” If you don’t see the link, then hover your cursor over the “Spy Flash” tab above and select the story from the drop-down list.

Why don’t you give the story cubes challenge a try? Take a look at the picture above, write a story of any length, then post a link to it on Jennie Coughlin’s blog.