grammar

Using ‘passed’ and ‘past’ correctly #writingtips #amwriting

Following on from my post explaining the differences between ‘lying’ and ‘laying’, another very common issue I find when I’m editing is confusion when using ‘passed’ and ‘past’.

Passed is the past tense of the verb ‘to pass’. It’s used to describe things that have already happened. It’s also the past participle of ‘to pass’ so it’s used for the passive voice (the law was passed) and perfect tenses (thirty years have passed by so quickly).

The definitions of ‘to pass’ are:

  • To move or make something move (the cars passed along the street)
  • To go by someone or something (we passed the supermarket on the way to the meeting)
  • To give something to someone (he passed me the salt)
  • To go by (time has passed so quickly)
  • To be successful in something (I just passed my driving test)
  • To approve a law (the law was passed)

Passed is only ever a verb form.

Past, however, has lots of different functions – it is an adjective, a noun and a preposition.

As a noun:

  • The time before the present moment (we didn’t use that method in the past)
  • The history of a place or person (he never talks about his past)

As an adjective:

  • Gone by in time or no longer existing (his best years are past)
  • Happening before and leading up to the time of speaking or writing (he’s really grown in the past year)

As a preposition:

  • From one side of something to the other (he ran past her and into the house)
  • Telling the time (it’s past midnight)
  • Further than a specific point (I can see past the harbour and out over the sea)

As an adverb:

  • To move from one side so as to move from one side of something or someone to the other (she saw a car going past) 
  • time going by (a year went past before she saw him again) 

I am an experienced editor, and have worked on more than five hundred projects in a variety of genres including dystopian, romance, memoir, erotica, YA, fantasy, short stories, poetry and business. I am happy to edit in either UK or US English. 

I have a first degree in English Language and Literature and a master’s degree in creative writing.

Read testimonials from clients.

Find out about my editing services.

Contact me.

How to Write Dialogue #writingtips #amwriting

Dialogue is a hugely important part of writing fiction. It can move the action forward, reveal character, emotions and motivations, and can help show a reader a character’s back story. Good dialogue will draw your reader into the story. The good news? It’s not that difficult to achieve.

Listen

Writing excellent, realistic and informative dialogue begins with listening. Pay attention to how people actually speak to each other. Listen out for elements such as turn taking, pauses, figures of speech, contractions etc. This last one is really important. If you listen to people you will notice that hardly anyone says ‘would have’ or ‘did not’, for example. What they will say is ‘would’ve’ and ‘didn’t’. Make sure you use these contractions in your dialogue. Nothing sounds quite as unrealistic as someone saying:

‘I did not go for a walk. I could have but it was raining.’

What they will say is:

‘I didn’t go for a walk. I could’ve done, but it was raining.’

(OK, so that’s not exactly the most enthralling thing I’ve ever written, but you get the point.)

Say it

Whenever you write dialogue read it out loud. If you can, get someone to read it with you. It’s not until you actually hear the words spoken, that you can tell how natural it is, if it flows, if it works. Incidentally, I tend to read all of my own writing out loud. This really helps to pick out errors, repetitions and sentence structure issues (I do often get funny looks from the dogs).

Leave out the boring bits

While dialogue needs to be realistic, it can’t be exactly the same as real speech. If you listen to an actual conversation, you will notice lots of pauses, lots of sounds that aren’t actual words (ums and errs etc.) and lots of ‘fillers’ that are completely irrelevant. Your dialogue has a purpose, and while it should be ‘real’ it should also achieve something. Get rid of anything that doesn’t add to the story.

Beware dialogue tags

In a previous life I worked in a school. I spent a lot of time teaching children to avoid using the word’ ‘said’ in their writing. In fact, I have spent whole sessions putting together lists of alternative dialogue tags. Now I spend a lot of time editing these same tags out of manuscripts. The problem is that exciting, exotic dialogue tags only draw your reader’s attention away from what is actually being said. They detract from the story. And, if your writing is peppered with words like ‘exclaimed’, ‘bellowed’, ‘croaked’ etc., it looks like you’re trying too hard to come up with something different each time. Which you probably are. Stick to ‘said’ and ‘asked’ for the most part. Your reader shouldn’t have to be ‘told’ how your character is speaking, they should gather that from the words, the actions, the situation etc.

Break it up

While dialogue is exciting and adds variety, you don’t want line after line of dialogue. Break it up with some action. Actions can also work in place of dreaded dialogue tags. For example:

 ‘Did Ted drop off the package?’ asked Linda.

‘I don’t know,’ said Sophie.

‘For goodness sake,’ Linda sighed. ‘I asked you to remind him.’

can be transformed into:

 Linda burst into the office.

‘Did Ted drop off the package?’

‘I don’t know.’ Sophie glanced up from the screen, her lips pursed.

Linda flung her bag onto the desk.

‘For goodness sake! I asked you to remind him.’

It’s completely clear here who is talking. Also, there is a sense of where the action is taking place, an idea of what the characters are doing and how they’re feeling.

Avoid exposition

Be very careful to ensure that readers do not feel that dialogue is being used simply to let them (the reader) know certain facts. Let the reader ascertain things from what your character is saying. Trust your reader – don’t force feed them details.

Read

Anyone who is serious about writing needs to read. A lot. And reading someone else’s work can help a great deal when it comes to writing dialogue. When you come across dialogue that works really well, work out how the writer did that. And when dialogue doesn’t work, again, work out what went wrong. You’ll then know what to do and what not to do when it comes to your own work.

I am an experienced editor, and have worked on more than five hundred projects in a variety of genres including dystopian, romance, memoir, erotica, YA, fantasy, short stories, poetry and business. I am happy to edit in either UK or US English.

I have a first degree in English Language and Literature and a master’s degree in creative writing.

Read testimonials from clients.

Find out about my editing services.

Contact me.

BEATING WRITER’S BLOCK #writingtips #amwriting

Writer’s block – we’ve all heard of it, and lots of us have experienced it, whether it’s just that horrible half an hour of looking at a blank piece of paper or empty screen while our brains refuse to perform, or the more serious, crippling months or even years of inability to create that has afflicted some of the greatest writers. I know there have been times when I have tackled a huge pile of ironing, or walked the dog in the rain rather than face writing another chapter, or starting an article (or even a blog post), and the longer I’ve left it, the worse it has got.

Writer’s block can be caused by many things. For many, it often stems from a fear that their writing isn’t good enough, and that no one will want to read it anyway. Or perhaps you’re feeling guilty about devoting a day to working on your next novel rather than writing something you’re actually getting paid to produce. Then there are all the other little niggling responsibilities. But remember, writing is important because it’s important to you. So next time you’re faced with a blank page, rather than go for the usual avoidance tactics of cleaning the skirting boards or reading random articles online in the name of research, try one of these:

Write anything. Set a stopwatch for five minutes and make yourself write until the buzzer goes. It doesn’t matter what it is; just the physical action of writing something down can be enough to get your writing going again

Let yourself be terrible. Sometimes we can’t write because we feel our writing isn’t good enough. But when you are at the beginning of the writing process that doesn’t matter. Your first draft doesn’t have to be a prize-winner. Just write, whether or not it’s rubbish (chances are, some of it won’t be). You’ll be going back and re-drafting and editing over and over again. It doesn’t matter if what you write now actually is awful – it’s the finished manuscript that matters. As Margaret Attwood once said; ‘If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.’

Move on If you’re stuck in a scene or you can’t quite resolve something, move on to another scene. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t witting chronologically. You can write the ending first if you want to, or the middle, or a scene two thirds through. It doesn’t matter – no one’s watching! You can come back and fill in the gaps later. And writing a different scene might help ‘unblock’ whatever problem it was that you had previously.

Exercise your brain. There are literally hundreds of writing exercises and prompts available online. Use one to kick start your writing. Try Mslexia for lots of helpful writing advice and exercises. And there are plenty of prompts on the Writer’s Digest site.

Exercise your body. Walk the dog or go for a run. Sometimes being away from the house doing something physical can be enough to unblock your brain. Leave your phone behind and look and listen to what’s around you.

Plan your time. If you can, make sure you’re writing when you’re most creative and productive, whether it’s last thing at night or first thing in the morning. Try and keep an hour clear at those times to devote to your writing, even it if means getting up earlier or going to bed a bit later.

Set a target. Even if it’s only a couple of hundred words a day, or thirty minutes a day, make sure you write. Don’t worry how good or bad it is – just write for those minutes or write those many words. As Kingsley Amis once famously said: ‘The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of one’s pants to the seat of one’s chair.’

Give yourself a break. It may be that you’re trying to do too much, that you’re tired and stressed. It’s hard to be creative at times like these. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Take a week away from writing to catch up on all those other little nagging tasks that spring to mind when you’re trying to write. Guilt about spending time writing can cripple creativity, and its all very well telling yourself that writing is important too – we all have other things in our lives that can’t just be ignored. Get these done, and then you can sit down to write without worrying. And the time away may be enough to cure your writer’s block.

Happy writing!

I am an experienced editor, and have worked on more than five hundred projects in a variety of genres including dystopian, romance, memoir, erotica, YA, fantasy, short stories, poetry and business. I am happy to edit in either UK or US English. 

I have a first degree in English Language and Literature and a master’s degree in creative writing.

Read testimonials from clients.

Find out about my editing services.

Contact me.

EXPOSITION – THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE BORING #writingtips #amwriting

Despite the fact that I quite often highlight great tracts of text and write ‘EXPOSITION’ over them in bold, (actually I’m much more polite than that about it) exposition is, in fact, extremely important. Indeed, exposition is part of every narrative; without it your reader would have no idea what was going on, where anything was, or who the characters were. Used wisely, used well and given the appropriate mode in which to inform, then it does have a valid part to play in a narrative. You can probably have no better example than the bard himself. The opening scene of Shakespeare’s Othello tells us a lot about Iago and Roderigo, their relationship and their status. And all in a few lines of dialogue.

ACT I
SCENE I. Venice. A street.
Enter RODERIGO and IAGO

RODERIGO: 

Tush! never tell me; I take it much unkindly

That thou, Iago, who hast had my purse

As if the strings were thine, shouldst know of this.

IAGO:

‘Sblood, but you will not hear me:

If ever I did dream of such a matter, Abhor me.

Without wanting to make this a lesson in literature and language, the opening lines tell us that Roderigo is socially superior to Iago; he says, ‘Tush!’ in other words, ‘Shut up.’ He must be Iago’s superior to speak to him like this. So, with one word, the audience is put in the picture.

Shakespeare knew that ‘showing’ the audience information about his characters and the setting, through actions and speech was far more entertaining and engaging than simply ‘telling’ them that information. And ‘telling’ is the form of exposition that we have all been guilty of using (yes, all of us, without exception; if you don’t think you haven’t done it then you don’t know what it is). But we do need to let our reader in on things, so how do we go about it without ‘telling’?

Let’s take a simple example. Your protagonist, Bill, is tetchy because he didn’t get much sleep. First of all ask yourself the question ‘Does it matter? Does my reader need to know this?’ If the answer is yes, then you could say this:

Bill was tetchy that morning as he hadn’t had enough sleep.

Now that’s really boring. And if you do this all the time then it’s really, really, really boring. So how can you give your reader this information without ‘telling’ them?

Use dialogue, and use action. These two things can help enormously and will bring interest, movement and life to your writing:

‘For god’s sake, woman, why is this coffee cold?’

The mug followed its contents into the sink, the clatter drowning out the cheery tones of the radio DJ.

Emily lowered the newspaper.

‘You could always make it yourself. That would be a refreshing change. Anyway, why are you so grumpy?’

Bill sat down opposite his wife and placed his head in his hands.

‘Did you not hear it?’

‘Hear what?’

‘That bloody noise from next door. All night that same scraping and bumping. Then they started screaming at each other. I didn’t get a wink of sleep.’

I know this isn’t exactly Pulitzer Prize winning stuff, but I hope it’s a bit more interesting than the first example. After all, here we have a scene not just a sentence. And we have also learned quite a lot – Bill likes coffee, but he expects his wife to make it (is he a sexist pig perhaps? Is there conflict in the marriage? Resentment? An impending divorce?). We also know that there are some pretty strange people living next door, who are up to all sorts of things in the night. And of course, we also know that Bill is grumpy because he didn’t get much sleep.

Exposition through dialogue can be very effective then, but do be careful. You need your dialogue to be realistic. Don’t use it as a way of dumping information. And make sure your characters never tell each other things they already know. For example:

Bill adjusted his tie in the mirror. Emily smiled and straightened it, patting him on the shoulder.

‘Don’t look so nervous. You’ll be fine.’

‘I know, but I have to make this work. I really need this job. If I don’t get it I don’t know what I’ll do. The mortgage is due next week and we’re already three months behind. They’ll be looking to repossess if we don’t pay up.’

Emily nodded.

‘I know. Then there’s the money we owe your mum. It was nice of her to pay Tarquin’s school fees for the last two months, after all they were about to kick him out. But we can’t keep relying on her. Not now she’s got all those medical bills to pay. How awful that she should break her hip falling down the stairs on her birthday.’

Now I know this is an extreme example, but lots of writers do this. Bill doesn’t need to tell Emily how far behind their mortgage payments are – she knows. And Bill knows his mother paid Tarquin’s school fees, and everything else Emily tells him. If your reader needs to know this information, find different ways to show it – have a letter arrive from the bank just as Bill leaves for his interview, or have Emily visit her mother-in-law in hospital and be told that there is no more financial help.

And remember, as with most things in writing, and indeed in life unfortunately, less is more. Don’t bog down your narrative and bore your reader with unnecessary detail. Show them what they need to know and let them put the pieces together.

Happy writing!

I am an experienced editor, and have worked on more than five hundred projects in a variety of genres including dystopian, romance, memoir, erotica, YA, fantasy, short stories, poetry and business. I am happy to edit in either UK or US English. 

I have a first degree in English Language and Literature and a master’s degree in creative writing.

Read testimonials from clients.

Find out about my editing services.

Contact me.

Getting your writing off to a great start in 2022 #writingtips #amwriting

It’s been a tough couple of years, and goodness knows what 2022 will bring. COVID has shown us that we just don’t know what’s around the corner. But there’s something about January, despite what’s going on the world, that always feels full of hope. It’s like opening a fresh new notebook, full of blank pages just waiting to be filled. 

If you are planning on setting some writing goals in 2022, are beginning your first novel, or cracking on with your twentieth, thinking of self-publishing or are about to query agents, are a first-time author, or a seasoned pro, this is a great time to take the opportunity to brush up on your writing skills. Throughout January and February, I’ll be posting some writing and editing tips to help you on your writing journey.

From advice about the proper use of dialogue tags, to the problems with exposition, from commonly confused words, to managing transitions between scenes, the blog will be full of advice, quick tips and pointers to help get your writing on track.

Make 2022 the year your writing is the best it can be. 

And if you’re considering hiring an editor, do get in touch.

Quick Writing and Editing Tips – Punctuating Dialogue

Make sure you punctuate dialogue correctly, particularly when using question marks or exclamation marks before the closing speech mark. So, for example:

Incorrect:

“Who’s there?” He asked.

The sentence consists of the dialogue and the dialogue tag, so there shouldn’t be a capital letter in the middle of the sentence; even though a question mark is usually used at the end of a sentence, here it ends the sentence that is spoken, but not the sentence that the dialogue is a part of, so this should be:

“Who’s there?” he asked.

And:

“I’d like a cup of coffee,” she said.

Note here that, although the sentence of dialogue has ended, the sentence itself hasn’t, so you don’t use a full stop at the end of dialogue, you use a comma.

Quick Writing and Editing Tips – Commas #Writing #Editing

1) Use a comma to separate items on a list. This always reminds me of a memory game I used to play with my kids on long car journeys:

I went to the shops and I bought an apple, a banana, a cherry and six bars of chocolate.

Be careful to avoid confusion here though:

I went to the shops and bought my favourite sandwiches – hummus, sardine and cheese and tomato. 

Now, are we suggesting here that I eat sandwiches with all these fillings? Or that I like hummus sandwiches, and sandwiches that contain sardines AND cheese AND tomato. Or sardine and cheese. Or just cheese and tomato? Commas can clear this up:

I went to the shops and bought my favourite sandwiches – hummus, sardine, and cheese and tomato.

2) Use a comma to separate a series of actions, events or elements in a sentence:

She opened the door, peeped inside, and screamed her head off.

3) Use a comma before a conjunction to connect two independent clauses:

She opened the door quietly, but he still heard her.

This is a case where the comma could be left out, but using it here helps the pace of the sentence, and adds to the suspense.

4) Use a comma after the introductory elements of a sentence:

Opening the door, she felt a scream rise in her throat.

Use a comma to set off parenthetical information:

She opened the door, her heart banging in her chest, and peeped inside. 

The bit between the commas can be removed without changing the essential meaning of the sentence.

5) Use a comma to separate adjectives.

She was a scared, pale little thing. 

If you can put an ‘and’ between the adjectives, then it’s probably better to use a comma there instead – you might say ‘she was a scared and pale little thing’, but not ‘she was a scared and pale and little thing’.

6) Use a comma when you are writing speech:

This door’s hinges,’ she said, ‘are in need of some oil.’

And

‘I think we should oil the hinges,’ she said.

7) Use a comma before a phrase that expresses a contrast:

‘The door was tall, but not very heavy.’

Quick Writing and Editing Tips – Active and Passive #Writing #Editing

Using the active voice makes your writing simple, clear, concise and immediate, drawing your reader into the action of the piece and giving your writing energy. Using passive voice, on the other hand, can make your writing seem too formal, dull and wordy and can create a distance between the reader and the words.

Passive 

In passive sentences, the thing acted upon is the subject of the sentence, and the thing doing the action is usually included at the end of the sentence, for example:

The book was read by Sam.

The book is the subject receiving the action, ‘was read’ is the passive verb and Sam is doing the action.

Active

In active sentences, the thing or person doing the action is the subject of the sentence, and the thing or person receiving the action is the object. So:

Sam read the book.

Sam is the subject doing the action,’ read’ is the verb and the book is the object receiving the action.

What’s the problem?

The problem with passive is that the thing or person receiving the action becomes the subject of the sentence, but he, she or it isn’t actually doing anything. They are having something done to them. The first sentence isn’t grammatically wrong – it makes complete sense, but it sounds unnatural and forced. Another issue with passive voice is that it can be wordy. For example:

Passive

It was thought by most people that I killed my husband because he cheated on me.

Contrast the active:

Most people thought I killed my husband because he cheated on me.

Quick Writing and Editing Tips – Verisimilitude (or keeping it real) #Writing #Editing

How do you ensure that you keep the ‘reality’ of your fictional world intact? Here are the pitfalls to avoid:

  • Something unusual happening in your fictional world that you haven’t prepared your reader for
  • A character that notices something they wouldn’t notice in real life, says something they wouldn’t say, or does something they wouldn’t do
  • In fantasy, a character not using a skill that you have given them when they should do so
  • Unrealistic dialogue that is used to convey information 
  • In historical fiction particularly, an object, custom, behaviour that didn’t exist or wouldn’t have happened in the time in which your novel is set
  • Continuity. This is as important in fiction as it is in films. For example, if your character has his hands handcuffed behind his back, don’t have them in front of him two minutes later (as in Reservoir Dogs).

Much of writing is about building believable and compelling worlds, but those worlds must follow a logic that the reader can relate to, understand, and around which you can create interesting and dynamic stories. 

Quick Writing and Editing Tips – Transitions #Writing #Editing

Transitions are used to:

  • Change time
  • Change location
  • Change character viewpoint
  • To skip unimportant time periods or events

So how do you use transitions skilfully?

  • Start a new chapter – this easily lets your reader know the narrative has moved on
  • If you’re changing scene/time/viewpoint  within a chapter use a physical sign like ***** centred on the page, or double space and then don’t indent the first line of your next paragraph.
  • Keep it short and simple – ‘that night’, ‘the next day’.
  • Jump right in – rather than say: ‘When Linda arrived at the coffee shop the next morning’ go for ‘Linda slid into the booth and took a sip of her latte’. We know where and when Linda is straight away.