From Rick:

Last week Scott pointed out that one of the biggest annoyances for readers is errors in a book. Indeed, one the major complaints against self-published novels has been the poor quality of the writing and lack of proper editing in many of them. Granted, not all readers will care about–or even pay attention to–grammar and punctuation errors. Some readers will spot them and not care as long as the writing and story itself are decent. Astute and fussy readers who do care about quality are likely to rage against rampant errors when they write reviews. Or, if they don’t bother with a review, they’ll simply not recommend the book. Either way, your sales will suffer. Worse, those readers may not give you a second chance with your next book.

I’ve made this point several times before–as have numerous other bloggers on the topic of self-published e-books–but since we continue to see so many low-quality books being released, it’s clear that the word either hasn’t spread, or those writers don’t think it applies to their work.

I’m well aware that there have been a few notable exceptions of lesser-quality self-pubbed books becoming bestsellers. Those are RARE exceptions, and they’re exceptions because the stories themselves were sufficient to overcome the deficiencies. If you expect shoddy writing will be rewarded with bestseller status, you’re setting yourself up for a huge disappointment.

Clean writing is writing that reads smoothly, is free of typographical and grammatical errors, and is punctuated in such a way that the eye moves easily over the text. Non-critical readers are unlikely to be bothered by occasional incorrect punctuation errors unless they’re obvious things like missing periods and quotation marks, but may be stopped by too many or too few commas that cause the text to be difficult to read. Such readers will also overlook often confused words such as lie/lay, sit/set, its/it’s, and passed/past because they may not know the distinctions themselves. Even if noticed (and unless widespread), these errors won’t cause most readers to stumble.

However, when the errors become rampant and so blatant that they bother non-discriminating readers, then you have a real problem. Things like “He heard a loud grown” or “He had to pea badly” will be noticed. It goes without saying that writers who are this inept with the language will likely have other issues with their writing, and the combination will be deadly.

As Scott said in his last post, writers have to be better than their readers. Since your readership will span–hopefully–a wide audience, you can’t slip by with skills being marginally better than some of your readers. You have to be equal to or better than all of your readers.

Scott also recommended the Chicago Manual of Style as a key reference for writers. It’s a good investment for any serious writers, and it’s a lot cheaper than the services of a good editor. Plus, you’ll gain the experience of learning the language properly. The CMS is not strictly a grammar book. It’s a style book and a helper for editors. You should ensure you have a good, current dictionary (less than ten years old). Online dictionaries are fine, but be sure you use reputable ones. In any case, never rely on a single dictionary for reference. For online sources, I have found two to be the most reliable:

http://dictionary.reference.com/

http://www.merriam-webster.com/

Be careful when looking up new words and spellings of new words because not all dictionaries will agree. For example, dictionary.com will show “cellphone” as an alternative spelling of “cell phone” while the Merriam Webster one does not. Bear in mind that the Merriam Webster site is the more scholarly one. While other dictionaries may reflect more current usages and spellings, they may not have the scholarship behind them. Be careful about using other dictionary websites that are not based on established dictionaries. Wiktionary, for example, is user-written and may not have the same level of scholarship behind all of its entries. That’s why it’s wise to check multiple sources.

An interesting thing happened while I was checking the current pricing of the various dictionaries and the CMS on Amazon, several Kindle book deals popped up on my screen. I checked out one that looked interesting and noted that a reviewer bad-mouthed it for the writing quality. I quote one example of an error that he cited: “‘Yea’ is pronounced like ‘Nay’ – hence, ‘Yea or nay,’ The word the author is looking for is ‘Yeah.'” My rule is: don’t assume. Always look it up even if you’re sure.

You can see from this that readers do pay attention to a writer’s errors and ignorance. I’ve seen more than one writer spell “Whoa” (correct) as “Woah.” Slang expressions should to be spelled properly (or at least in accord with some established consensus), not guessed at. And if you can’t find a consensus, then you have to be internally consistent in your writing. For example, I’ve seen the interjection “Jeez” and “Geez” both used (but not “Jeeze/Geeze” except by writers who didn’t bother looking it up). If you check www.dictionary.com, you’ll find that Geez is not an alternative spelling of Jeez. In fact, the former means something else entirely.

Even more embarrassing are misused words or expressions. I read one book recently that among other errors referred to a “scolding hot fire”, said “the smoke rescinded” (instead of “receded”), and a character was “dually” (instead of “duly”) excited.

Few things will make you look more inept than inconsistent spellings of your characters’ names or terms you make up for your story. Word’s spell checker will catch any words not in its dictionary, but you must be careful of blinding accepting all spellings of your made-up words.

With those suggestions about a few ways to clean up your writing, let’s move on to the interesting sentences part of this blog.

The difference between dry, dull writing and interesting writing is more than subject content. Done properly, nearly any topic can be made interesting. With fiction, it’s critical that you engage your reader and not put him to sleep.

Below are two passages from my first two novels, modified to make them rather plodding and uninteresting–and pretty bad writing. After each one, I show the passage as it actually appeared in print.

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FROM CHAPTER 1 OF MORE THAN MAGICK

My name is J. Scott Madison. I just finished my senior year in college at UCSD in San Diego, California. It was Thursday morning. It was the day after finals. There were two reasons I had to stay on campus. The first was my graduation ceremony on Sunday. My job was the other reason. I took a job as a dorm resident advisor because I could live there for free. It was really sort of a babysitter job for undergraduates. The job required me to stay until all the other students had left. The job taught me three things. I learned how to put up with a lot of crap from the undergraduates. I also learned some good counseling skills. Sometimes I had to shut my door and ignore them. I hoped that maybe I would be able to use these skills later in life.

The advisor’s room was located near the front door. I think they put it there so we could watch for guys sneaking women in at night, but we didn’t care about so much that now. I never brought any women in for myself. I was still a virgin. My father is a colonel in the Army. When I was twelve, he showed me these awful Army training films. They sort of scared me into not wanting to have sex ever. I thought about those every time one of the guys bragged about getting laid. I told myself I just wasn’t ready.

The main street in front of the college is North Torrey Pines Road. There is a beautiful beach between it and the Pacific Ocean. The students surf at lunch. Not me, though. I didn’t sun myself on the beach, either. I had scholarships that paid most of my tuition. I had to keep up a certain average to keep them. My father reminded me every time he called that I had to keep those scholarships. He said he couldn’t afford my tuition if I lost them.

So, I was stuck here with nothing to do until Sunday. I spent my time watching TV in the dorm lounge. During the commercials I thought about my future. Do I want to go to grad school in marine biology, I thought, or do I want to get a job. My father wants me to enlist in the Army like my brother. I don’t want that.

**********

HERE’S HOW IT ACTUALLY APPEARED IN THE NOVEL–

My senior year in college had ended. It was Thursday morning, the day after finals. Two things kept me on campus: a graduation ceremony on Sunday and my job. I was dorm resident advisor and had to stay until the dorm was empty. I received free room and board in exchange for babysitting undergraduates. In the past year I had learned to be tolerant; I had learned to counsel; I had learned when to shut my door—all valuable, real-world skills.

The RA’s room had a coveted location near the door, although making it easy to sneak women in and out of the room undetected surely was not the designer’s original intent. However, this coming Sunday I, J. Scott Madison, was graduating at my virginal best, having been scared spermless by the do-it-and-watch-it-rot Army training films thrust upon an impressionable, pubescent child of twelve. At least, that’s where I had convinced myself the blame lay.

UCSD sits above a gorgeous beach along North Torrey Pines Road in San Diego, where the students surf at lunch. I didn’t surf, and I didn’t worship the Great Yellow Ball in the sky. Scholarships aside, at those tuition prices I was there to study, as the Colonel frequently reminded me.

With nothing else to do until graduation, I caught up on my TV viewing. During the commercials I alternately considered grad school in marine biology and a real job. The Colonel still hoped I’d choose career military, as my brother had.

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ANOTHER EXAMPLE, THIS ONE FROM THE OPENING OF VAMPIRES, INC.. FIRST THE “BAD” VERSION–

Eli Howard glanced at the wall clock that was on the wall at the rear of the lecture hall. He had finished fifteen minutes early. “We’re done for this evening,” he said. “Next week there will be a short quiz at the start of the period on tonight’s material. Are there any questions?” No one raised their hand. “Please read chapter thirteen for next time,” he added.

He began to pack up his thingS. One of the female students came up to him. “Professor Howard, I just wanted to tell you how much I’m enjoying this class. You make it sound like you were there.”

The class he was teaching was Black History 1865 to the present. Some student would always say pretty much the same thing every time he taught it. He would always pretend to make a joke and tell them, “I was born in 1838 in Jackson, Mississippi. I was there.” The girl’s eyes got big. Then she saw it was a joke and laughed at it.

“Thank you for telling me that, Miss,” Eli said. He shut his briefcase. He was curious about what she was thinking, so he read her thoughts. She was surprised he had said that. She hadn’t expected her history teacher was the type to make a joke like that. He told her he would see her next week. He put on his leather coat and left the room. He could see the surp5rise still on her face.

He stepped outside onto the streets of the campus of Wayne State University. The streets were wet and no one was around. He remembered hearing thunder about an hour ago during the class. It must have rained, he thought. The air was muggy.

He saw a young woman come out of one of the buildings in front of him. She was walking toward the parking lot and was carrying books under her arm. She had a folded denim jacket on top of the books. His eyes were very sensitive to light so he could see her without a problem. She was attractive and had great skin. He also saw the two men hiding in the shadows. He stopped next to a tree and set his briefcase on the ground. He looked at the Blue Light Security Phone at the far end of the lot. It wasn’t close enough for him or the woman to get to in time.

**********

AND HOW I ORIGINALLY WROTE THE PASSAGE–

Eli glanced at the wall clock at the rear of the lecture hall. He’d finished fifteen minutes early. “We’re done for this evening. Next week there will be a short quiz at the start of the period on tonight’s material. Any questions?” Several students groaned, but no hands went up. “Please read chapter thirteen for next time.”

While he packed up his notes, one of the female students approached him. “Professor Howard, I just wanted to tell you how much I’m enjoying this class. Your perspective makes it sound like you were there and experienced it.”

Every semester that he taught Black History 1865-to-present, he could count on at least one student making that remark. He always replied with, “I was born in 1838 in Jackson, Mississippi. I was there.” The student’s eyes would invariably widen and a smile usually–but not always–would follow from the assumption that it was a joke.

“I appreciate the compliment, Miss Michaels.” Eli shut his attaché. Out of curiosity, he tapped into her thoughts. She wasn’t sure which surprised her more: the remark itself, or her history professor pulling a presumed joke out of thin air. “And I will see you next week.” He donned his leather coat and left, with her gaping after him.

Outside, the Wayne State University campus streets glistened from the brief thunderstorm of an hour before. The storm had left muggy air and deserted campus streets in its wake.

Ahead of him, a young woman exited a classroom building carrying a folded denim jacket on top of the books under her arm as she walked toward the parking lot. His light-sensitive eyes easily discerned her attractive facial features and flawless skin. He also spotted the two individuals lurking in the shadows nearby. He stopped next to a tree and set his attaché on the ground. The Blue Light Security Phone at the far end of the lot wasn’t close enough for quick access by either of them.

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Believe it or not, I do see writing similar my doctored, bad versions. To make the passage read badly, I cut out some of the stronger descriptive words, used “was” more, and split sentences apart to make them simpler. I changed some of the dialog into non-dialog sentences and increased the number of dialog tags.

The point of my doing this is to demonstrate how you can take simple, boring writing and sharpen it by varying the structure of your sentences to make them more interesting. You can cut words and explanations in some cases to achieve more vivid sentences. Look at the bastardized version I created of one paragraph–

He stepped outside onto the streets of the campus of Wayne State University. The streets were wet and no one was around. He remembered hearing thunder about an hour ago during the class. It must have rained, he thought. The air was muggy.

That’s five sentences. Note how much cleaner and tighter the final version was with only two sentences.

Outside, the Wayne State University campus streets glistened from the brief thunderstorm of an hour before. The storm had left muggy air and deserted campus streets in its wake.

We don’t need to mention that’d he heard thunder or hear his thoughts. We’re seeing–and feeling–it from his perspective, without being told that he’s thinking. You can hopefully picture it. You also know from this version that the rain accounts for the deserted streets. The other version doesn’t link the storm with the deserted streets.

And one further note–which I will cover in another blog–is that I personally hate the use of “he thought.” It’s almost never necessary. If the reader can’t tell it’s a character’s thoughts, then you probably haven’t written it very well.

I trust this will be of benefit. Look at your writing. Look for ways to make it more interesting and to show the reader through the character’s eyes instead of telling everything in simple, uninteresting sentences.

But I leave you with a warning. Don’t overdo. I’ve seen too many writers think that they have to turn every simple sentence into something complex. The result–as Scott and I have pointed out before–can be worse. The writer may end up with a bunch of lovely complex sentences that are all structured the same way. Be sure you don’t overuse “as” clauses and “ing” forms before and create something abominable:

Stepping outside, he spotted a young woman as she exited a classroom building, carrying a folded denim jacket on top of the books under her arm as she walked toward the parking lot. Easily discerning her attractive facial features and flawless skin, he also spotted the two individuals, lurking in the shadows nearby as they watched the woman. Stopping next to a tree and setting his attaché on the ground, Eli looked toward the Blue Light Security Phone at the far end of the lot, trying to figure out what to do as he realized it wasn’t close enough for quick access by either of them.

This is just as bad as the stiff, simple sentences. Don’t do this, either.

–Rick