Do you have problems beginning that new story percolating in your head? Are you feeling afflicted with writer’s block? Are you stuck on a scene with no idea how to move forward? Do you feel that your current ideas are stale and trite? Perhaps the Disney method can help you!
If you work in business or design, you might have heard of it before. The Walt Disney method is a creative strategy designed to find and develop unconventional ideas. While inspired by the way Walt Disney worked, the method itself was proposed by Robert Dilts in 1994.
In the Walt Disney method, the creator divides thmself into three separate roles: the Dreamer, the Realist, and the Critic. These three roles must work separately in three stages:
First, the Dreamer brainstorms ideas in a focused way. The more the better. No limits or restraint. There are no “bad”, “stupid”, or “impossible” ideas; you can embrace the crazy and the stupid as much as you want. It’s still a focused brainstorm: you’re dreaming for an objective, say, a new amusement park attraction, ways to get your characters out of a pinch, the funniest and/or most character-focused problems you can add to your story… anything you need ideas for.
Instead of sitting down and writing or typing your ideas, walk around and record yourself saying your ideas out loud. Speak without pause for 5 or 10 minutes. Look above the horizon to stimulate your creative brain. Some business websites recommend setting up different rooms for each stage of the process, so why not try a change of space? Go outside or to a room different from the one you usually work in.
Once you’ve got loads of ideas, it’s the Realist’s turn. The job of the Realist is to look at the Dreamer’s ideas and think: How do we make them possible? The Realist doesn’t say “No”. It’s not the Realist’s job to say whether an idea is bad or won’t work. In this role, you must assume anything is possible and limit yourself to asking: How can I execute this? For our amusement park example, the Realist would select and bring in specialists who could make plans to turn a crazy idea into a real ride.
Listen to the recording you made in the previous step. Without discarding any ideas, start with the most interesting or promising ones, and develop them. Write a rough draft or the details of what would happen in a scene. Do the necessary research. Reorganize scenes as needed. Try working on a whiteboard with markers and post-its: a place where you can stand up and look at your ideas in front of you.
Once you have a solid proposal, or in a writer’s case, a complete first draft, the Critic comes in. The Critic’s job is to detect and correct flaws, mistakes, and risks (something crucial if you’re making an amusement park ride!). This is the moment to evaluate what works and what doesn’t work, what stays and what goes.
Sit down with the printed-out draft on the desk, where you can look down at it, and use a red pen to mark places that need re-working or any contradictions in the narrative. Tighten the phrasing and clear up confusing details. Clean up the draft.
The stages then repeat as needed: for more ideas, go back to the Dreamer, then develop them, then edit again.
The changes in position help to change your own perspective on the work, to dream or execute or evaluate more objectively.
You probably already do something similar in your writing process: you have an idea, make an outline, write a first draft, then a second, a third and fourth and so on. You have alpha and beta readers who help brainstorm ideas, develop them, and correct the draft.
Personally, the most helpful takeaway of this model is the neat separation of the roles. The Dreamer and the Critic cannot work in the same stage: criticism stifles creativity. When I’m outlining, brainstorming, or writing a rough draft, it helps me to keep this in mind. If I find myself getting judgmental about my story, I take a deep breath and tell the Critic to shut the fuck up. Whenever I’m blocked, I’ve found it often comes from me being too critical in a stage of the process when I need to be dreaming or just executing.
Of course, the three roles are equally important in the creative process. Without the Dreamer we wouldn’t have new ideas; without the realist we would never do anything with them; without the Critic the work wouldn’t be as clean and clear as it can be.
I have used this method before to write a stand-up comedy routine, which requires a lot of crazy ideas and well-developed set-ups and punchlines, but it can work for any creative needs. I have also applied the brainstorming method to develop the heist in my upcoming story in She Wears the Midnight Crown, as well as to think up character-based conflicts for previous fanfiction and original stories.
As with any other strategy or method, it’s up to you to try it, use what works for you and discard what doesn’t. I hope this can help you if you’re stuck, or at least inspires you to try something different!
Have you ever used the Walt Disney method? How was your experience? Would you do anything differently? Are there any other methods that work better for you that you’d like to recommend? Let us know!
It can be daunting to ask for feedback on our work. Past negative experiences, horror stories from friends, fear of people disliking something we’ve worked so hard on, uncertainty about what to input to ask for, and many other factors can make it seem easier to write our stories alone rather than show them to another person.
Once you understand how to ask for feedback, however, sharing your works-in-progress can become a valuable tool for gathering information and honing your craft. So if you’re struggling with your work in progress, hoping to publish or publicize your story in some way, or are looking to develop your writerly skills, read on to learn how to ask for the right feedback for your needs!
How to ask for feedback
First, and most importantly: You don’t need to ask for feedback. Whether you ask for input depends on your individual writing, editing, and publishing goals. This post starts at the point of assuming you’ve already decided that you’d like feedback, but are hesitant or struggling for whatever reason. Here are some tips on getting the type of feedback you’d like – feedback that helps you move forward armed with useful information.
1. Be specific
Do not let people guess what you want. They will guess wrong.
Even experienced editors need to be given some directions so they can focus on the aspect(s) of the story that you’re concerned about. For example, if they give suggestions on a story element you’d thought was fine, but offer no comments about dialog which you’re afraid sounds stilted, you may end up feeling more anxious than before. So when soliciting feedback on your work, tell your reader exactly what type of feedback/information you’re looking for, and ask them not to color outside those lines unless you allow it. Your questions will help your readers focus their energy and give you feedback you can actually use. (More on what types of feedback or aspects of the story you may want to consider is later in this post!)
If your work is being edited for publication, this rule changes slightly since your editor will also be applying their own suggestions to help get your story ready for their particular outlet, but you’re still welcome to ask any additional questions and request feedback on the things you’re worried about!
2. Think about what stage your story is at
Different stages of writing need different types of feedback. Too nitpicky early on, and you might waste effort polishing passages that don’t make it to the final story—and it’s easier to fix big-picture issues earlier in the writing process. A good rule of thumb is to start broad at first, and get progressively more specific as the story takes shape.
Early-stage: When you’re still brainstorming ideas and working on your first draft. Early-stage readers (often called alpha readers) are there to help you understand how your story is coming across but not to give value judgments.
Some example questions to ask early-stage readers:
Characterization: What are your impressions of the main character(s)? Who do you think they are, what are their motivations? What do you find interesting or cliche about them?
Worldbuilding/Setting: What is most interesting/surprising/confusing to you about this world? What is important to the people in this society? How is this world similar to or different from yours?
Mood/Tone: Does it feel funny, dark, matter-of-fact, poignant, exciting? What parts make it feel that way? Is the narrator’s tone matter-of-fact, dramatic, funny, and does it feel jarring to read?
Plot: What do you think this story is about? What do you expect to happen next based on what you’ve read so far?
Sensitivity: If you’re familiar with the disability/job/experience described in this story, how well did it reflect your experience? Where did it fall short? What sorts of details would be more appropriate or accurate to include?
In General: What confused you? What excited you? What wasn’t as interesting? What made you want to read more?
Early-stage feedback is for collecting impressions, finding out what people are interested in, confused by, what they think the story is about, etc. This is important information for you as a writer as you aim to assess whether your writing is faithfully conveying your ideas. If people generally have the wrong impression about something that you thought was obvious, that could be an indication that you need to rework that part of the story to make the important details more clear.
If solicited before you’ve completed your manuscript first draft, early-stage feedback can also give you ideas for how to move forward. If people are excited by a certain theme, you might decide to emphasize that theme. If they all expect the same thing to happen next, you might do something to subvert those expectations—or play into them—or, if it’s not at all what you had in mind, tone down the hints leading to that conclusion.
If you want reliable feedback, it’s often better to keep your questions general and avoid spoilers. For example, if you’re trying to figure out “does the reveal about Character A work?” and you directly ask that, your early-stage reader will already be clued in and on the look out specifically for that, so you won’t get a clear idea of what a reader who isn’t “primed” would read.
However, if you want to ask your reader for more specific or technical advice at this stage, be ready to share more so they can better help you (e.g. the story concept, where you’re at in the writing process, what unanswered questions you still have about the world, the characters, and the plot). You can always wait and share this information after they’ve read the passage if you don’t want to spoil their reading.
Middle-stage: Once you’re sure that your story’s most basic aspects are sound, try asking more technical questions about story structure, pacing, tone, and characterization. You don’t need to give much context; instead, see what the readers understood from the story itself. This helps ensure that your writing is clear and accurate to your intentions.
Some example questions to ask middle-stage readers:
Characterization: How does the main character come across to you at the beginning of the story? Have your impressions changed by the end, and why? What moments made you empathize with them? Do their actions feel justified? If not, what parts felt contradictory or confusing? What are your favorite and least favorite parts of them?
Worldbuilding/Setting: How does the setting affect the way you understand or think about this story? What details made you feel like you were really immersed in the world? What details or descriptions pulled you out of the world? What felt confusing or contradictory? What felt especially meaningful or cool? Did anything feel random, inconsistent, pointless, irrelevant or unnecessary?
Mood/Tone: Is the narrator’s tone flowery or lyrical? Matter-of-fact? Is the mood (the feeling you get from the story) dark, funny, tense? Where does it shift, and do any of the shifts feel jarring?
Plot: Does the story feel ‘finished’ at the end? If not, what do you feel is missing? What unanswered questions are you left with? Are there any storylines that you wished you could have read more of? What parts did you want to skip or skim?
Sensitivity: Same as for early-stage readers If you’re familiar with the disability/job/experience described in this story, how well did it reflect your experience? Where did it fall short? What sorts of details would be more appropriate or accurate to include?
In General: Same questions as early-stage, but also: what themes or motifs did you notice in the story?
The goal of these questions is to get more technical feedback; looking at the whole story, what works well, what is missing, and what takes away from the story’s success? These more specific questions can help you in your revisions as you decide what to elaborate on, rewrite, or cut.
Late-stage: After a few rounds of edits, you might be ready for a beta reader. In fanfiction circles, a beta reader is an all-rounder who helps with everything from brainstorming to proofreading, but here I’m referring to the person who reads your story before publication to give you one last chance for edits before sharing with the general public.
If you’re at this stage, you can ask many of the same questions as for early and mid-stage feedback, but also let your reader get more into the weeds about thematic elements, contradictions in characterization, plot holes, and details about the world that still seem inconsistent or confusing. Ask them to be picky; the story is all there, this is your chance to make sure it hangs together.
Spelling and Grammar Feedback: Once you’re sure your project tells the story you want to tell, you may solicit an editor to give you feedback on Spelling and Grammar (SPAG). It’s equally important to make sure this person is clear on what aspects of the story they’re supposed to focus on, and you should specify if you want their input at all on conceptual aspects of the story or if you’d prefer them to focus on clarity, proper grammar, spelling, and the other technical components of the story.
3. Choose your readers carefully
As important as the questions you ask is who you’re asking them of. Will this person respect your boundaries and only give the feedback you request? Will they be honest with you and non-judgmental toward your writing? Close friends and family can often seem like convenient, ready-made readers. However, unless you’ve worked with them before and know how they’ll behave, proceed with caution. People who are too close to you might be too gentle because they want to make you happy, or they might ignore your boundaries because they think they know what you need better than you do or that those boundaries apply only to strangers. If someone, because of their relationship to you, is going to give responses you can’t trust, don’t ask them.
Great readers are often other writers. Join writing groups (Eventbrite, Meetup, NaNoWriMo regional groups, and local writing cooperatives are good places to start), writing courses (my personal favorite is the International Writers’ Collective, and Clarion is also widely popular and well respected, but also look for courses near you!), and reach out to people whose fanfiction or original writing you admire. It can seem scary to contact people out of the blue, but these are all people with the same hobby as you, and even if they’re too busy to work with you they’ll be happy to know you appreciate their writing!
You can offer to trade feedback, too. Trading feedback is a great way to build your skills twice as fast – as you learn to give critique, you can also better learn how to apply critical reading skills to your own writing.
4. Ask for help from multiple people
Spreading out the job of giving feedback can make the job easier on your readers. It can also mitigate the sometimes intense emotions that come with getting feedback. If no single person is commenting on everything, then you won’t feel as burdened by any one person’s opinions.
Some areas you could ask different people for help with include:
Brainstorming: If you have a friend whose ideas complement yours, ask them if they have time to talk stories with you! All ideas are good ideas when you’re brainstorming.
Developmental edits: Developmental editors can listen to where you want your story to go, see where it’s at now, and help you cross that sometimes-frightening gap between the two. Some editors are trained in this, but a trusted writing friend who has editing experience can also be a huge help with developmental edits.
General Story Comprehension: Check that your story makes sense (and if not, where/why/how it went wrong). The example questions under the early-stage and middle-stage feedback stages are great for your general-comprehension readers.
Characterization: Although you have an idea of who your characters are, does that come across to your readers? Ask someone who loves characterization to help!
Sensitivity readers and/or subject matter experts: When writing about an experience, location, or type of character that you’re not familiar with, try finding people who’ve lived that experience to check whether your descriptions resonate with them.
Beta reading: Ask someone who reads voraciously to go through the whole story and make note of all their unanswered questions, plot holes they spot, things they loved, things that were confusing, etc.
Proofreaders: Your beautiful grammar nerds. If you’re working with a publisher, your editor will likely do a proofread. If you’re self-publishing, don’t skip this step! Editing software can help but won’t capture all of those stray en-dashes where an em-dash should be.
5. Remember feedback is a tool, not a prescription
When you get your feedback, don’t panic! It’s for you to use as you wish, and most writers only act on a small part of the feedback they receive.
You can use your reader feedback in unexpected ways. For example, if someone says that they really wanted to see more of a side plot, that may convince you to develop it more. However, if you didn’t want them to care so much and think it’s detracting from the main story, you could cut it and save it for its own story.
Additionally, there is no rule that says you have to ask for feedback for every story or stage of your writing process. If you’re writing a short story that you feel confident about, you might only want a quick round of feedback at the end. If you’re doing a long, multi-chapter piece, you might do a mix of early and middle-stage feedback for different sections of the story. One story might come so easily that it feels like it’s writing itself while the next needs lots of extra help.
This is all normal. You’re not losing your touch if you need more input on certain stories; every story is unique.
6. It’s Okay to Ask for Only Praise
Normalize the writing cheerleader! As someone who has both given and received writer cheerleading, I truly don’t know how I wrote before discovering this. It’s less structured and has more emotional investment than other types of feedback, so is a bigger commitment for your reader. If you want a writing cheerleader, explain to your reader what you’re hoping for and ask them if this is help they’d be comfortable with providing.
A writing cheerleader will shower you with praise, poke you for updates, and generally be your emotional-support reader. If you’re struggling to get words on the page or have been feeling down about your writing, they can make the difference between finishing your story and never touching it again. But even if your writing life is mostly smooth sailing, it’s still valid to want to find a reader who’s excited to read what you send them and who gives you unmitigated love in return. Let them boost your ego; you can be critical once the draft is written. No matter how cringey it may seem at first, the joy is infectious, and it works.
The Feedback You Never Knew You Needed
Before you start asking for feedback, you may wonder why anyone bothers exposing themselves to potential criticism. And even after this becomes a normal part of your practice, you will sometimes get feedback that doesn’t help or reflects the reader more than the writer.
So why ask for feedback?
Beyond developing your critical reading skills and learning more about your own writing, feedback can teach you about people: how they think, what they notice, what makes them care. It helps you understand how other people experience the things you write so you can start writing in those ways more deliberately. It can also help you learn to manage your “preciousness” about your own writing—when you let other people dissect your work, even if they’re not making value judgments, there’s going to be some discomfort. Learning to push through that for the sake of growth is like developing a superpower. You’ll start seeing your writing as the medium through which you communicate with your readers and developing ways to do that even more effectively.
Do you need to ask for feedback? Absolutely not. But if you’ve decided you want feedback and you learn to ask, accurately and clearly, for the kind of feedback you want, it can be incredibly useful, and—dare I say it?—fun.
This is the second in a series of posts about the Three-Act structure, written by guest blogger Annabeth Lynch. You can read the first post, Romance Novels, here.
Writing can be a difficult undertaking. Like most anything that’s worth doing, it’ll test your skills and determination. Ernest Hemingway gave my favorite description of being an author: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” It’s beneficial to have a game plan to help you move along, even if you’re a pantser like me.
Are you ready to bleed? Good. Let’s start with the breakdown of the three-act structure. It basically separates the story into the beginning, the middle, and the end. They’re formally known as the Setup, the Confrontation, and the Resolution. The Setup takes the first quarter up to the first 25% of the full story length, the Confrontation is the middle half from 25% of the total word count to about 75%, and the Resolution makes up the last quarter, from about the 75% point to the end at 100%. This is a Western story composition, a typical structure across genres. I’ve already made a post about this structure in relation to the romance genre here, but though it follows the same rules, the plot points are different. What follows are the basic guidelines for a mystery novel, including the approximate word count at each milestone. Mystery novels are typically 80,000 to 90,000 and we’ll be working based on an expected word count of 90,000.
This is where you lay the groundwork for your novel. As always, it should begin with your hook–the situation or goal that lures in your readers. After that, it’s time to begin your world and character building. Here you should establish the baseline for your world, anything that makes it different from the real world, and the reader should also get a feel for your character(s) and their routine. This part sets the tone for the rest of the book.
At the 12% mark (10,800 words in) is the inciting incident. In mystery novels, this will be the crime that will be investigated–the call to action that your amateur or professional sleuth will undoubtedly rise to. Whether they accept it right off the bat or after careful consideration, it shouldn’t take much longer than this point for them to decide to take action.
By 20% of the way in (18,000 words), all important characters should be introduced. As this is a mystery book, they don’t need to be introduced directly–the reader just needs to know they exist. For example, if you don’t want the antagonist to be someone that is actively on the page, that’s fine, but the reader must know that they exist, even if only as a mysterious “someone” committing the crime. Of course, it can also be someone that already has a name and has shown up in the protagonist’s life!
The first major plot point comes around 25% (22,500 words) into the book, at the end of the Setup. This is where the stakes are raised and the case starts to become personal to the protagonist. Whether it’s something small, like the antagonist goading them, or big, like a friend falling victim, it needs to be something that will cause the protagonist to feel closer to the investigation and throw more of themselves into it.
This act is most of the book and includes almost all of the build-up and a fair amount of the action. This is the meat of the story. Tension and suspense are going to be thick here; now is not the time to skimp on detail. Senses are going to be your best friends during this section; your readers are going to want to feel like they are also solving this crime. Does the protagonist have goosebumps? Is the hair on the back of their neck standing up? The readers want to know it all!
At about 37% (33,300 words) is the first pinch point. This is usually when another person falls victim to the antagonist, but it can also be a good place for a look into the antagonist’s life. Perhaps we see a glimpse of them or get a piece of information about them as a person. Either way, one of the bigger clues should be dropped here, bringing the main character(s) one step closer to solving the mystery.
50% (45,000 words) is the midpoint. This is when your false high or false low comes in. A false high makes it look like the protagonist is going to be victorious and solve the case, but it turns out to have been misleading and they are back to square one. False lows are the opposite, making it seem like there’s no hope of ever catching the criminal just before they make a breakthrough in the case. In addition, this is typically when we discover the antagonist’s reason(s) for committing these heinous crimes and what motivates them.
Around 62% (55,800 words) comes the second pinch point. Here is another chance to get a look at the person committing the crime(s), whether through another victim or because the main character has gained more understanding or insight. This is also a good time for any development in an internal plot or goal for your protagonist, or for character growth that will ultimately help them solve the case.
The second plot point comes into play at 75% (67,500 words), or the end of act two. This raises the stakes of the plot to their peak. This is usually the part where we see the main character recommitting to solving the case (especially if they were discouraged by the false low or the high stakes). It should become clear at this point that the protagonist is going to have to confront (see what I did there?) the antagonist and possibly they should start plotting out how they will go about it. The plan usually doesn’t go as expected, but that’s a problem for the next part.
You’re getting close to the end now! This part is action-packed and, for the most part, fast-paced. Things are going to be falling into place, and setting up for a good ending. This section is comprised of the three C’s: Crisis, Climax, and Conclusion.
The Crisis kicks off at 87% (approximately 78,300 words). Now is when the big questions that have been posed throughout the story are answered. Will the antagonist win and get away with it all? Will the protagonist do what it takes to win? Are they strong enough to face what must be done? This is also when the main character figures out their overarching problems and learns the life lesson that the Setup posed.
The Climax comes quickly after the crisis, at 90% (81,000 words). All the clues should fall into place to reveal the culprit, and the showdown between the protagonist and antagonist finally occurs. Usually, there’s a moment where the main character looks to be beaten by the villain, with no hope to escape. There are many ways this can be solved–cleverness on the part of the protagonist, or rescue by close friends, or even teaming up with potential or past victims. However you go about it, it should be satisfying and connect to the core of the story lesson, goal, and the life issues previously introduced, such as the character embracing themselves or trusting others.
By the end, readers are looking for a view of how life is now that the criminal has been stopped. Conclusions often offer a glimpse of how the main character is doing and, most importantly, whether justice was served or if the antagonist weaseled out of it (which is often the case in multi-book series). This can also be an epilogue if you’re partial to them.
You did it! That’s the whole book!
I hope this is helpful for anyone struggling with the bones of a mystery story. Remember, this is just a general guide and you can modify/edit/reject any parts of this that you don’t like. You make your story interesting and unique! Don’t underestimate the power of your own input. Until next time, happy bleeding!
This is the first in a series of posts about the Three-Act structure, written by guest blogger Annabeth Lynch. You can read the second post in the series, Mystery Novels, here.
Writing a book can be daunting. Ernest Hemingway gave my favorite description of being an author: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” It’s a big project that takes a lot of determination, especially if your goal is to write to meet a fast-paced challenge like NaNoWriMo. It’s beneficial to have a game plan to help you move along, even if you’re a pantser like me.
An understanding of the three-act novel structure can really help with basic planning. This structure breaks a story up into three primary sections: the beginning, middle, and end. Usually, the first act is called the Setup, the second act is the Confrontation, and the third and final act is the Resolution. The Setup is the first 25% of the story, the Confrontation is the middle 25%-75%, and the Resolution is the last quarter, 75%-100%. Across all genres, most stories follow this structure, which makes it a great plan to follow, but there are a lot of details that just knowing the names and approximate lengths of the acts doesn’t cover. Especially, the common landmarks that mark the transitions between the acts are often different between genres. In this article – the first in a series discussing how to apply the three-act novel structure to different genres – we’ll go over the more in-depth structure of a romance novel (which are usually approximately 90,000 words long). For simplicity’s sake, this will be written as if the romance only involves two parties (e.g., isn’t poly and/or harem and/or reverse harem) and that the development and advancement of the relationship is the main plot.
Act 1: The Setup
This act lays the groundwork for the novel. It should, of course, start with your story hook – the situation or goal that will draw your readers into the story. Then, proceed with your world and character building. We should see your character(s) in their normal life, get a baseline of how the world works if the story includes fantasy or science fiction elements, and see their routine.
By the 12% mark (approximately 10,800 words into a 90,000-word novel), the main couple should have had their meet-cute (or meet-ugly) and reacted accordingly. This can result in them deciding to pursue the relationship or rejecting it, whichever your story calls for. This should directly cause them to accept or reject the call, e.g. wanting or not wanting the relationship.
20% into the book (approximately 18,000 words in) is typically the latest a main character should be introduced. Any character who is important to the plot should be actively involved in the story by this point. They need time to work their magic too!
The 25% mark – the end of the Setup act (approximately 22,500 words in) – is when the first plot point is introduced. This is where the couple is essentially “stuck” together. One or more major events that change their lives will, by this point, also cause them (often force them, if they’re antagonistic initially) to need to spend more time together, furthering both the “main” arc of the plot and their romance/relationship. The reason they are spending time together will serve as an important element for the second act, so it will need to be a consistent reason to meet up.
Act 2: The Confrontation
This is the meat of the story. Over the following 45,000 words (roughly half of the entire story by length) is when the romantic tension builds. The couple spends increasing amounts of time together, growing closer and building mutual trust. Doubts about each other and/or the relationship and/or the problem introduced at the end of the Setup and will lead to the final conflict should also grow in proportion.
Around 37% of the way through (approximately 33,300 words in) is the first “pinch point” of the story. This is where there should be a scene that builds intimacy. It could be something physical and discrete, such as a first kiss, or something more interpersonal, such as a demonstration of the increasing trust between the characters. Whatever occurs, it changes the way the prospective romantic partners see each other and takes them deeper into the relationship. This is an important plot point and shouldn’t be overlooked.
50% (approximately 45,000 words in) is the story’s midpoint. Congratulate yourself on making it this far! Now is the time to up the stakes. This is usually accomplished by bringing the characters to a false high or false low. A false high makes it look like the couple are on their way to a “happily ever after,” whereas a false low threatens that the characters may never end up together. Regardless, the result is that your characters do some introspection or get advice that causes them to decide what they really want in terms of the relationship, and how that does and will influence the daily life we got a glimpse of during the Setup.
At 62% (approximately 55,800 words in) the second pinch point comes into play. Events at the second pinch point more often are driven by internal forces/feelings/reflection – a look into the mind of the main characters as they struggle with the circumstances around their relationship. They have to overcome their own preconceptions to earn their love story. If you choose a false high, the other shoe should drop and separate them. Whenever things give them pause, though, the characters’ issues should resolve by them finding their way back to each other.
The end of act two, the Confrontation, comes at the 75% mark (approximately 67,500 words in) with the second major plot development. This will be a point when the stakes reach an all-time high. All the simmering conflict should boil over, and the worst possible thing(s) happens. This is often a breakup, where it looks like the couple will never end up together. Trust is broken and their differences appear unfixable due to one or both of them rejecting their true feelings.
Act 3: The Resolution
During this act is when all the questions that have been raised throughout the book are answered, and the couple comes together again. I like to call this act the “triple C’s”, the Crisis, the Climax, and the Conclusion.
The crisis comes at about the 87% mark (approximately 78,300 words in). Your characters work through their feelings and decide if the relationship is worth the effort (this is a romance novel: they’ll decide that it is). They’ll face their own flaws and learn a life lesson, which will usually also give them the answer to their current non-relationship problems.
There’s a quick turnaround between the crisis and the climax, which should come at about 90% into the book (approximately 81,000 words in). Often, this involves a grand gesture by one member of the pairing toward the other, but that isn’t required. Either way, this is the point in the story when one of them admits their love for the other. Readers will be on the edge of their seats, waiting to see if they get back together.
By the ending, the characters have decided to be together and the readers want the “happily ever after” or “happy for now” ending. Conclusions often include a snapshot of their future, a hint of how they’re doing together, and how they’ve put in the work to achieve their dreams (both in terms of the relationship and any external goals introduced earlier in the book). This can sometimes be an epilogue as well.
And you’re done! That’s the whole book!
I hope this helps anyone struggling with developing and/or utilizing a basic framework suitable for structuring a romance novel. This is a general guide, but don’t be afraid to mix it up and make it yours. Remember, you make your story special, unique, and engaging!
This post was written in reply to an ask received on Tumblr. The ask:
Thank you for the quotation marks + punctuation post! That’s one of the top trouble areas I see when I beta read. (Understandable—there are tons of possibilities/rules.) I noticed in the em dashes section, example 2, there are no spaces between the dialogue and em dashes. Is that a hard-and-fast rule, or does it depend on preference/style guide? This is something I utilize in my writing so I would love to know if I’m getting it right, or if it’s simply a matter of being consistent. Thanks again!
Ah! Yeah, whether to put spaces is a choice. Some places use hair spaces, some thin spaces, some non-breaking spaces, some full spaces. Duck Prints Press opts for no spaces around em dashes in most cases.* Out of curiosity, I just checked CMoS—while I couldn’t find a place that explicitly said “do it this way”…well, in all their examples of em dash use, they do NOT put spaces around the em dashes, so I’d say that at least in CMoS the most grammatically correct usage would be to not put spaces on either side of the em dash.
*In most cases = virtually always in narrative, one major exception in dialog. When we use an em dash to denote interruption, sometimes there will be a full space after.
Ex. 1: “No matter where you go—no matter what you do—I’ll always be here for you.”
Explanation: this is a usage of an em dash that mirrors em dash usage in regular narrative text—essentially a form of parenthetical/aside—so it gets em dashes with no spaces.
Ex. 2: “I just said don’t—”
Explanation: this is the end of the quoted dialog. It would be heckin’ weird to put a space between the em dash and the closing quotation mark.
Ex. 3: “Why don’t—why don’t we just not?”
Explanation: this is self-interruption but the sentence that continues is the same as/part of the same sentence that was interrupted, so we don’t use a space. Our intention is to denote that the part before and after the em dash are still part of the same, like, context/concept. It’s the continuation of the same idea.
Ex. 4: “Look, I just— Don’t start with me, okay!”
Explanation: here’s the case where we use a space (our space case? lmao). It’s self-interruption, but when the the speaker resumes, it’s neither a parenthetical aside nor a continuation of the same sentence. It’s a brand new sentence. To help make that clear, we use a space there (and a capital letter.
Bonus—Ex. 5: Just as he was about to speak, I cut in— “Don’t say it!”
Explanation: this is about the only case I can think of where I’d use a space after an em dash in narrative/descriptive text, and it’s also to make interruption clear. Stylistically, a lot of writers will never even use this kind of phrasing, but it’s a permissible stylistic choice to write narrative interruption this way, and when people opt to do it, we do put a space between the end of the description and the start of the dialog, for the same reason as in Ex. 4—it’s a new sentence and it’s clearer with the space.
Contrast with: Just as he started to speak—”I already know,” I expected he’d say—I interrupted him and said, “Don’t say it.”
In this one, though there is a dialog piece/quoted material within the em dashes, it IS a parenthetical aside, so there’s no space.
Bonus—Ex. 6: “Whatever you do”—he waggled a finger in my face—”don’t go in the forest.”
Explanation: when an action is inserted in the middle of dialog, it’s essentially a parenthetical aside, just it’s a non-dialog parenthetical shoved into a dialog chunk, so it follows the same rules as an em dash aside would in other cases—so no spaces.
Again, this is one of those areas where there’s no hard-and-fast rule, and I’d expect different Press’ internal style guides to handle this em dash + space usage in different ways, but this is how I’ve opted to handle it, as lead editor at Duck Prints Press.
(the key, in the end, is consistency—if you pick one way and always do it that way, I doubt anyone is gonna give you shit, though you should expect that if you then submit that to a Press, the Press will edit it to match their preferred style to ensure uniformity within and across their publications).
Thank you so much for sending an ask! It’s always exciting when we actually get editing/writing asks. As a reminder, y’all, anyone reading this, always feel free to send us questions like this! We are grammar pedants and we are only to happy to be pedantic on whatever SPAG topic you’d like to know more about!
There are numerous quirky quotation mark placement + punctuation rules. For the common cases, such as basic dialog, most people know what to do, but we often see people get the less common cases incorrect, so we’ve put together a quick guide to help out!
Note that this post is written according to standard US English usage. The rules are different for other English dialects!
Basic—Punctuation + Quotation Marks in Dialog:
When writing dialog, the punctuation goes inside the quotation marks in the vast majority of cases. (Almost always, but I know if I say “always” someone will find an exception, ‘cause there’s always an exception, because English, why?)
Ex. 1: “Thank you,” she said.
Ex. 2: “Thank you.” She reached out and shook my hand.
Ex. 3: “Thank you!” she said.
Ex. 4: “Thank you?” she said uncertainly.
Ex. 5: “Thank you…” she muttered.
Ex. 6: “Thank y—” A loud pop interrupted her.
Essentially: If the punctuation is part of what’s being said (is demonstrating some aspect of how the dialog has been said) then it goes inside the quotation marks. (The most common exception relates to em dashes—more on that below!)
Intermediate—Punctuation + Quotation Marks in Narrative Text:
In narrative/descriptive text, the placement of punctuation depends on two factors:
a. Which punctuation is in question
b. The nature of the text within the quotation marks.
The basic rules are (this is paraphrased from CMoS 17th Ed.):
Periods: always inside the quotation marks
Ex.: The art of repairing cracked pottery with gold is called “kintsugi.”
Commas: always inside the quotation marks
Ex.: The art of repairing cracked pottery with gold is called “kintsugi,” and the practice originated in Japan.
Semi-colon: always outside the quotation marks
Ex.: The art of repairing cracked pottery with gold is called “kintsugi”; it is also called “kintsukuroi.”
Colon: always outside the quotation marks
Ex.: Other materials can be used for the art of repairing cracked pottery with gold, usually called “kintsugi”: silver and platinum are also sometimes utilized.
Question Marks: depends on what is in quotes. If the quoted material includes the question mark, then it goes inside of the quotes; otherwise, it goes outside the quotation marks.
Ex. 1: Is the art of repairing cracked pottery with gold called “kintsugi”?
Explanation: “kintsugi” isn’t a question, the entire phrase is the question, so the question mark goes outside the quotation marks.
Ex. 2: The article is entitled “Do you have questions about repairing cracked pottery with gold?”
Explanation: the title of the article is itself a question—the question mark is part of the quoted material, and therefore goes inside the quotation marks.
Exclamation Points: work the same way as Question Marks.
Ex. 1: I just learned that the art of repairing cracked pottery with gold is called “kintsugi”!
Ex. 2: The article is entitled “Everything you ever wanted to know about ‘kintsugi’ but hadn’t thought to ask!”
Em Dash: depends on what is in the quotes. If the purpose of the em dash is to denote that the words themselves are being interrupted, the em dash goes inside the quotation marks. If the purpose of the em dash is to mark that a specific action (sans dialog tag!) is interrupting the dialog, then the em dashes go outside. (Sorry this is a little challenging to describe, hopefully the examples help make it clear.)
Ex. 1: “The art of repairing cracked pottery with gold is called—” She broke off when she saw I was holding up a sign that said “kintsugi,” indicating that I already knew.
Explanation: the dialog itself is what is breaking off—in this case because the speaker is being interrupted—so the em dash goes inside the quotation marks.
Ex. 2: “The art of repairing cracked pottery with gold”—she held up a beautiful bowl that appeared to have once been broken, a tracery of gleaming gilding showing where the fault lines once were—“is called ‘kintsugi.’”
Explanation: when an action is interjected into the middle of a line of dialog, the em dashes go on the outside of the quotes.
Ex. 3: “The art of repairing cracked pottery with gold,” she explained as she held up a beautiful bowl, “is called ‘kintsugi.’”
Explanation: this instance has a dialog tag, so commas are used instead of em dashes. The first comma goes within the quotation marks, the second outside.
Advanced—Punctuation + Nested Quotation Marks in Dialog:
Sometimes, a character quotes something they’ve heard. In cases like this, the writer needs to use nested quotation marks (in standard US English, that’s double quotes “” for the first “layer” of dialog and single quotes ‘’ for the second “layer”). The relationship of the punctuation to the nested quote depends on what’s being said. When the dialog is nested, where the punctuation goes follows the same rules as in the “Intermediate—Punctuation + Quotation Marks in Narrative Text” section just above.
Ex. 1: “Did she say ‘Thank you’?” she asked.
Ex. 2: “Did he say ‘Thank you’ to you?” she asked
Ex. 3: “Did he say ‘Thank you,’ or did he say ‘tanks for you’?” she asked
Ex. 4: “How dare he say ‘Thank you’!” she exclaimed.
Ex. 5: “He said ‘Thank you,’” she replied.
Ex. 6: “He said ‘Thank you,’ I think?” she replied.
Ex. 7: “He said ‘Thanks’ and also ‘good luck.’” She nodded as she explained.
Ex. 8: “Actually, he said ‘Thanks!’” she replied.
Ex. 9: “Actually, he asked ‘Should I thank them?’” she replied.
Other Uses of Quotation Marks
Quotation marks can also be used when identifying the titles of works, scare quotes, defining words in foreign languages, etc. Regardless of the uses, the above rules about punctuation placement apply.
Two weeks ago when we posted our “Formatting Tweaks to Help Your Typesetter Have a Great Day” post we mentioned that the “Capitalization Quirks” section became so long that we decided to break it out into a separate post. That didn’t get put up last week cause of debuting May Trope Mayhem, but the time is NOW!
Capitalization Quirks, or: How to Get More Capitals and Lowercase Letters Right So Your Editor Has One Fewer Thing To Do!
At the most technical, literal, simplistic level, all sentences in English should start with a capital letter. If you google “should I always start a sentence with a capital letter,” all the top results say yes. But! That’s overly simplistic. For example:
“I was just saying—”
“—That you’re tired.”
That’s wrong, because it’s not a new sentence. The “—t” needs to be lowercase. Thus, this should read:
“I was just saying—”
“—that you’re tired.”
Then, there’s sentences that “trail in” with an ellipse. For example:
“…when did you say that?”
This one, on a technical level, could go either way. Duck Prints Press goes with lowercase on this, using the same reasoning as the em dash case: it’s not a complete sentence, more of a fragment.
Some other examples where there shouldn’t be a capital (I’ll bold the letters that shouldn’t be capitalized).
Case 1: “In any event”—taking a deep breath, she flopped into her chair—“it is what it is.”
Case 2: After I got to the event (which took way longer than it should have, but that’s a different story!), we went to our seats together.
Case 3: Every time he thought he was finished—every time!!—he realized he’d made a mistake and had to start over.
Those cases are relatively simple and clear cut. Not all sentences will be. Often, when writing dialog, people use many permutations of sentences, not-sentences, ellipses, em dashes, and more. Keeping track of what needs to be capitalized and what doesn’t requires knowing a lot of quirky rules. People especially often end up confused about when text following quotes should have a capital letter and when it shouldn’t. The rule of thumb is, if the text in question is a dialog tag, it should be lowercase, even if the dialog before it ends in a question mark or exclamation mark.
(Again, bolding the lowercase/uppercase letter in spots where people most often get mixed up.)
“This example needs a lower case letter after it,” she explained.
“Does this—?” he started to ask.
“Yes!” she interrupted.
“What about this one?” he said.
“Yes, that one too…” she replied, sighing.
If, on the other hand, the narrative text after the dialog is an action (as in, not a direct dialog tag indicating how the thing was said), then it should be uppercase.
“I’m still confused how this works.” Rubbing his brow, he took a deep breath.
“I promise it’s not that hard.” She grabbed a pen and a piece of paper and started writing down examples.
To help keep clear when to do this: if what you write can be replaced with say/said and still make sense, then it’s a dialog tag. If it can’t be, then it’s not a dialog tag and it should be capitalized.
“I don’t know when what follows counts as a sentence and when it doesn’t,” he pointed out with a frown.
“It depends how you’re describing what the person said.” Her voice took on a frustrated tinge.
But! That’s not all!
“What about if I, I dunno…” He looked at the examples she’d written down. “What if there’s more dialog after the first thing said and the first batch of narrative description?”
“Then”—she grabbed the pen and started writing more sample sentences—“it depends. For example, if I’m interrupting my own dialog with an action and no dialog tag, then it should probably be between em dashes, and only the first letter of the first sentence is capitalized. But if instead I interrupt myself with a dialog tag,” she continued, “then that uses commas, and again, only the first sentence is capitalized.” She paused, took a deep breath, then added, “But because that’s not confusing enough, if I stop, then use a narrative line that ends with dialog tag and a comma, then keeps going as dialog, then both the narrative sentence and the start of the dialog sentence needs a capital.”
“What about if everything is a sentence?” He grabbed the pen from her hand and scrawled down a few notes. “Then is everything capitalized?”
She threw him a thumbs up, an unspoken “you’re getting it now!” implied by the gesture.
Aghast, he blinked at what she’d just demonstrated. Finally, after working his mouth in silence for at least a minute, he managed:
“Does this ever make sense?”
“No,” she allowed, “but when you do it enough you start to get used to it.”
Yeah, I’m sorry. It’s the worst. I probably forgot at least two permutations, too, but I tried. Fixing capitalization on all of the above is a constant effort. Good luck?
All of these more-or-less follow the established rules of dialog capitalization, but there are some cases that simply don’t have a standard. For these, it will often depend on which style guide is being used, what editor is doing the work, what each individual publisher has decided, etc. Here’s some examples, with explanation of what they show.
“I don’t— Like, what am I supposed to do if there’s no standard?” Frustration was clearly starting to get the better of him. (This is: self-interruption to start a new sentence—we use: em dash + space + capital letter.)
“Hmm…probably your best bet is to just pick a way to handle each case and make sure you’re consistent.” (This is: self ellipse-marked pause/trail off that continues as the same thought—we use: ellipse + hair space + lowercase.)
“So if I…I don’t even know… What if I can’t remember what I did before?” (this is: trailing off, then continuing with a new sentence—we use: ellipse + space + capital.)
“Just—just—just figure it out! How am I—just a person trying to give a tutorial!—supposed to predict every kind of dialog you’re going to want to write?” she spluttered. (First part is: stutter/self-interruption, incomplete/continuing thoughts—we use: em dash + lowercase (no space). Second part is: em dash interjection in dialog, which uses the same rules as em dash interjections in narrative—we use: em dash + lowercase (no spaces).)
“Wh-wh-wh-what, that’s all you have to offer?” (This is: stuttering incomplete words—we use hyphen + lowercase (no spaces).)
Damn it… Do you really expect me to make all the decisions for you? she thought…but then she realized she should be kinder—this was hard stuff! “I guess I’d just suggest…make yourself a ‘personal formatting’ doc and write down how you did…whatever you did…when it came up?—that way, when it happens again, you’ll at least have a paper trail so you don’t have to scroll back to check what you did.” (This is: the same approaches as described above before, applied to thoughts and narrative text.)
And, that’s basically that! Did I miss any? Questions? Comments? Thoughts?
“I hate English,” he grumbled, taking up a lighter and burning the paper on which she’d written her examples.
The last few weeks, I’ve been doing a lot of editing, which also means I’ve been doing a lot of small changes to ensure that the documents are print and e-book ready. Preparing manuscripts involves doing a lot of tiny, fiddly tweaks to make sure that spelling, grammar, and formatting are uniform across all the stories in an anthology, are accurate to the authors’ intentions, and look nice in all the formats we’ll be offering (print, PDF, ePub, and Mobi). None of the changes are complicated, but making them all is surprisingly time consuming—I usually spend about 30 minutes “cleaning up” each story with modifications that are largely invisible to a writer and reader, but still essential to produce a polished finished book.
Each Press and Publisher will handle these formatting things in slightly different ways—while some of these (such as “when do I use a hyphen vs. an en dash vs. an em dash?”) others are publisher-discretion. If you are submitting a manuscript and want to look like you’ve really, really paid attention, consider making some of these changes yourself—but make sure you check if the place you’re submitting to has a public style guide first, and if they do, anything they say in their style guide takes precedence! (Duck Prints Press doesn’t have a guide yet—we’ve been working on one, but it keeps getting back-burnered in favor completing more timely tasks).
This post is written from our point of view—which is to say, I wrote it specifically for how we at DPP handle these formatting matters—but it can provide some general guidelines, especially if you are submitting to a publication that hasn’t provided a style guide. Even if what you do based on this guide doesn’t match what they do, at least by being consistent in your own submission, you demonstrate that you were paying attention! (But: NEVER do any of the below if it contradicts the submission information and/or style guide provided by a different publisher!!)
Note that to really do most of these tweaks, you’ll want to use an actual word processor. Google docs doesn’t have the functionality for the most fiddly bits. Despite its downsides, DPP currently uses Microsoft Office 365, and this guide is primarily written with Word in mind. If you also use Microsoft, here’s a couple quick tutorials—you’ll need to know how to do these two things in order to do…all the rest.
Tutorial 1: Inserting Special Characters
1. Go to the “Insert” Menu
2. Go to “Insert Symbol”
3. If, like me, you use the same 4 special characters over and over, the symbol you’re looking for will most likely be in the “recently used” list that pops up. But, if it’s not there, pick “More Symbols.” That opens a screen that looks like this:
4. While you could scroll through this list until you find what you want, it’s much easier to go to the bottom boxes I circled in red, where it says “Character Code.” Enter the 4-digit-and-letter code for the character you want. This way, you can be sure you actually get the character you want. Make sure that the “from” field matches the code type you’re using—I pretty much entirely use unicode, and that’s what I reference/include numbers for in this post. (Usually, googling “(name of the character you want) unicode” will get you the number.)
5. Note that not every character is available in every font; if you want to be sure you can access the maximum number of characters, I recommend using Arial or Calibri.
Tutorial 2: Turning on Mark-up
1. Go to the “Home” menu
2. In the “Paragraph” section, find the ¶ option; if your menu is drop-down it might be called “Show/Hide ¶” (in Word, it can also be turned on with ctrl + * )
3. Show ¶.
4. Profit. (okay, no, not really.)
Tutorial 2a: Using Mark-Up to Find Weird Formatting
Are there tab indents where there shouldn’t be? Extra spaces? Superfluous paragraph breaks? Turn on “Show ¶” and tada, you can see all the usually “invisible” formatting! This is essential for spotting a lot of problems, so it’s worth taking a peek at for your own work. Here’s an example of what it looks like when you do this (using an early draft/outline of this post!)
Dots are regular spaces. Circles are non-breaking spaces. Forward facing arrows are tabs. ¶ is a standard paragraph break. There’s a bunch of other symbols, too, but those are the ones that come up most often. I’ve labeled a couple others on the above image, to help you have an idea what you’re looking for. You’ll need this information to help you trouble-shoot some of the things below. If there’s a symbol on yours and you’re not sure what it is, I recommend Google.
So, you’ve got a handle on the above…on to all the formatting tweaks your editor and/or typesetter does that you may have never even considered as an essential part of publishing!
Getting Rid of Bad/Published-Book-Inappropriate Formatting
Tabs: published manuscripts doesn’t use tabs to make space. They make a huge formatting/spacing mess. Instead, we use paragraph formatting -> first line indentation -> (whatever indent amount the publisher has chosen as standard —we use 0.25”). If I get a manuscript that’s used tabbing—if you’ve used tab indents and want them gone—I get rid of it with a find-and-replace.
Replace with: (blank)
Tada, all tabs gone!
Paragraphs: people who add lines between their paragraphs by making extra paragraphs used to be the bain of my editorial existence…until I figured out how to remove the extra paragraph breaks with a single button click. There should only be one paragraph break after every paragraph; if there are multiple, then…
Replace with: ^p
Tada, all paragraph-paragraph breaks now only have one paragraph break!
Set Up Base Formatting
At least for editing/manuscript preparation, I start by getting the whole document into one, consistent format. I personally use:
Paragraph Indentation: 0.25”
Line Spacing: 1.15
Space Before Paragraphs: 0
Space After Paragraphs: 0
Justification: none (note: when formatting for print, right justification will ultimately be re-added in most cases, though there’s been a bit of a move away from that because justification can make it for people with certain forms of neuro-divergence to read; when formatting for e-book, never use right justification!!)
(If you know you always use the same base, you can also set it up as a “style” so you can do all the above with one click!)
Ultimately, even after doing the last three steps, there’s going to come a point where—to be absolutely sure that no janky formatting gets into the manuscript—I take the entire document and nuke all the formatting. When that time comes, any italicization, bolding, or other base-text-type modifications will also be lost. To make sure it’s not actually lost, I mark all words for which special formatting is used with a highlighting color. Which color to use is obviously arbitrary; here’s my preference:
Italics: yellow highlighting
Bold: green highlighting
Bold and Italics: purple highlighting
Strikethrough: blue highlighting
Strikethrough and Italics: red highlighting
(Those are all the ones I’ve had to do, and I add new colors as they actually come up in our printing.)
Epistolary or Other Non-Prose Writing Passages
Every Press is going to handle this differently; your best bet as a writer is to just make sure your intentions are super clear and be open to whatever your chosen publisher has as their “standard” for handling stories that include non-prose sections such as letters, text messages, schedules, poems, bulleted lists, charts, etc. From an “editor/formatter” point of view, I mark weird formatting spots (and special characters, which I discuss next) with comments so that I can find them again.
Did you know that, depending on which word processor you use, your quotation marks and apostrophes may not format uniformly? For example, if you write in Word (and haven’t turned off auto-formatting), your quotation marks will auto-switch from just two straight lines side-by-side into a pretty curly thing:
On the other hand, if you write on Google Docs from mobile, it will never auto-format your quotation marks. They’re called straight quotes or, sometimes, “dumb” quotes, and they look like this:
” (some viewers are auto-formatting this to a curly quote! google “straight quotes” and you can see the difference)
This is especially stark and frustrating if you do some of your writing in gdocs from mobile and some from desktop; then, you’ll end up with a document where some of the marks are auto-curved and others aren’t. Leaving them this way makes for a disjointed, inelegant look, and should be changed.
Industry standard is curly quotes.
One of the first things I do when I open a new manuscript to format for print-readiness is a find-and-replace to make sure that all of the apostrophes and quotation marks are formatted the same way. If you put an unformatted (“straight quote”) quotation mark in the “find” field and a formatted/curly one in the “replace” field, tada, every quotation mark fixed at once! And the same for apostrophes.
Speaking of apostrophes—one side effect of the ‘curly’ apostrophes is that they’re directional: an “open quote” curly apostrophe doesn’t look the same as a “close quote” curly apostrophe. Most of the time, this isn’t a problem. If you’re writing dialog, the ‘curly’ quotes will auto-format to the correct directions and the beginning and end of your quote. If you’re writing a contraction, same—the apostrophe will auto-format the correct ‘curl’ direction for your contraction. But, did you know? There are cases where using a lead-in apostrophe is necessary, but if it’s formatted in the ‘lead-in’ direction, it’ll be wrong! These are cases where auto-format will think you “need” a forward facing apostrophe, but you actually are supposed to use a backward facing one. The two most common instances of this are:
When using slang formed by dropping the first syllable. For example: ’tis, ’til, and ’cause.
When writing shortened years. For example: ’98, ’12, ’45.
(Can’t figure out how to force the right curve? You’ve got two choices: find one pointing the way you need, ctrl-c copy it, then paste it where needed; or you can get it from the Insert Symbol menu, unicode: 2019)
Hyphens vs. En Dashes vs. Em Dashes
Before I was a professional editor, I had the idea that figuring out when to use a hyphen vs. an en dash vs. an em dash was super complicated and inscrutable, but it’s actually easy to know which is appropriate in the majority of cases.
Case 1: you are writing a compound word. Compound words get hyphens. Now, what words get hyphenated, and when, and which don’t, is a completely separate issue, and not one I’m going to get into here. This post isn’t about grammar, it’s literally about formatting, and for formatting purposes, if you know you need to connect two or more words with little lines, the little lines you want to string those words together with is a hyphen. This is a hyphen: – (unicode: 2010)
Case 2: you are writing a range of numbers, dates, or times. You want an en dash. This is just about the only time when you want an en dash. This is an en dash: – (unicode: 2013)
Case 3: you are writing a sentence interjection—like this one!—or you’re indicating an interruption in dialog. You want an em dash. There are plenty of other cases when you should use an em dash, but those are the most common in fiction writing. This is an em dash: — (unicode: 2014)
Reference a style guide or tailor a google search if you’ve got something quirky going on and you’re not sure which type of dash to use.
Types of Spaces
Believe it or not, not all spaces are created equal. In fact, there are four used often, and some others to boot. The most common ones are:
Hair space: this is teeny tiny. Unicode: 200A
Thin space: this is roughly half the size of a normal space. Unicode: 2009
Normal space: the one we know and love. Unicode: 0020
Non-breaking space: a special kind of space that, when used, indicates to the document software/printer/e-reader, “even if this is at the end of a line of text, do not break the text here to start the next line: this ‘space’ should be treated as a fixed character for line-breaking purposes.” Also called an nbsp. Unicode: 00A0
Usually, you should be using, normal spaces, but depending on how your printer/publisher chooses to format things, others may be used. For example, some places put thin spaces on either side of em dashes. Here at Duck Prints Press, we put hair spaces after ellipses (…in some cases…) and we use nbsps in cases such as “When we’re quoting something ‘and there’s a sub quote that ends the sentence.’ “ (as in, there’d be an nbsp between the ‘ and “.)
Spaces and Formatting
As the existence of the nbsp implies, spaces can play funny with formatting, which is part of why in the age of digital the double space after periods has largely gone away—two space were important when typing on a type-writer, but when working in digital text it’s superfluous and can cause formatting issues. So, for example, I always do a find “ ” (two spaces) and replace it with “ ” (one space) for the entire document.
It’s also necessary to remove extra spaces at the end of paragraphs. Yes, every single one. Why? Because, especially if it’s an nbsp, it can actually make the manuscript longer. Picture it: you’ve got the end of a sentence, then a period, then an nbsp, then a paragraph break. This tells the e-reader that space HAS to be kept with that period and the last word. To do that, e-readers will bump the word onto a new line…solely because the space was there! And, while you might think this doesn’t come up much…if a trailing space is left at the end of a paragraph in gdocs, and that paragraph is copied and pasted in Word, every one of those spaces will be converted into nbsps. I once reduced a twenty-page document by half a page by removing all the trailing nbsps. Cutting them is important! Even if the space inserted isn’t an nbsp, it’s still important to get rid of it, because if that end space is what causes a line on an e-reader to be too long, bumping that extra single space to a new line will result in a blank line between paragraphs. Considering that e-book text size can be increased or decreased depending on device and reader, the only way to prevent extra spaces at the ends of paragraphs from dotting your document with blank lines is to delete every single one. By hand. I have done this t.h.o.u.s.a.n.d.s. of times seriously, you want to make your text formatters day? Please don’t leave spaces at the ends of paragraphs, I’m begging you. (and if you know ANY faster way to get rid of these TELL ME PLEASE!)
Here’s a simple and obvious one. Find all the … and replace them with …
Whoever is doing typesetting is probably going to use something pretty and/or fancy for marking scene breaks. The way you can make this easiest for them is to format all scene breaks in the same way, and simpler is better. For example, our default way to mark a scene break is:
…the end of the previous scene, with a paragraph break after it.
The start of the next scene.
No extra paragraph breaks, only one symbol that’s unlikely to have been used elsewhere in the document, easy to read and follow. Just using extra paragraph breaks can be confusing, using lots of characters is annoying (and a nightmare for screen readers)—you don’t want your editor to be guessing, so do something straightforward and stick to it.
Honestly? The section of this post about “times you don’t realize you need a capital letter but actually do” and “times you think you need a capital letter but actually don’t” got so long that I’ve decided to break it out into a separate post; that one will come out next week, so stay tuned.
Remove All Formatting
Once I’ve done all that…changed all the little stuff, marked anything unusual/stylistic (special characters, non-prose, italics, etc.), and gotten everything cleaned up…I go to the “home” menu -> “styles” -> “clear formatting.” This gets read of all formatting, including anything wonky/weird/broken/undesired that I may have missed. The notes and other changes I’ve done make sure that I don’t lose any information I need to format the document correctly, and just to be absolutely positive, there’s a reason I do this now in the process, instead of after the last step, which is…
Actually Finishing Editing
…because if I HAVE made a mistake, when I do my final editing pass and send the document to the author for final approval, they will hopefully notice anything that got lost in the process!
Long story short? Check your own documents for weird formatting stuff before submitting your stories, and save an editor and/or make a typesetter’s day!
Hey everyone! This is Aria, one of the resident fandom olds here to bring you a guest blog post this week. The topic is near and dear to my heart, so let’s dive straight into talking about that ever-ominous thundercloud – Writing Advice!
Writing advice is a tricky subject for many authors – what works for one clearly doesn’t work for another, and what’s essential for one genre might not even apply to another genre . (Certain authors can pry adverbs from my cold, dead hands.) It doesn’t matter who is offering it, where, or when: it is an industry truism that writing advice is as varied as writers themselves.
With that in mind, I asked ten different authors for writing advice, in the hope to highlight just how different we all are, even when approaching the same question.
The question I posed to everyone individually (so no one would get worried if they gave the same answer), was as follows: What is one piece of writing/writerly advice you hold as a Universal Constant? That no matter what you are writing or what you are working on still holds true?
As I hoped, the advice is as varied as the authors are!
Hmm I think for me, the Universal Constant is that [my writing has] got to make me feel good. Not necessarily happy, because I’ve definitely written through tears before, but it’s got to make me feel…satisfied, or give me catharsis, or lead me towards a goal I’m passionate about (looking at you, med school essays!).
Even if [my writing is] for school, getting things done feels good, and for creative writing, I want to feel like I’ve stretched my writing brain or accomplished something cool — if I’m not getting that feeling, it’s time for a break and maybe a new plan of attack.
“You can’t think your way out of a writer’s block. Most of the time you need to write yourself out of a thinking block.” – John Rogers
When a story is fighting me this is often the solution. Either the scene is going against the characterization, the characters are lacking agency/being too passive, or I went wrong three sentences back; the answer to getting the story flowing is to write it differently and see how that feels. Rather than try to force an existing scene by coming up with better justification for an OOC (Out of Character) passage or diving into a new research rabbit hole.
I don’t know where this advice first came from (it’s one of those things that just gets passed around until it’s from the general writer mindscape, especially in fandom spaces), but this is the advice I tend to ground myself in: “Write what you want to read.” What that means can vary depending on context, of course, but it gives a guiding point to return to when I’m stuck.
The thing I want to read could be a specific character dynamic, or leaning into descriptions of the environment, or a plot beat I really want to hit, or even (in a nonfiction context) just the clearest explanation of an event/rule I know how to give. Writing what I want to read means that I’m going to enjoy myself more, and that means that I’m going to be able to write much more easily, and that makes it more likely I’ll finish stories and be able to share them with other people – and then I can find people who like the same things in stories I do, and we all win!
The most constant advice that I really try to keep in mind is that sure, someone else may have written it, but not you. Everyone has unique experiences, and that makes your writing unique. No one can write something the exact way you would. It’s my favorite advice I’ve ever gotten, and I feel that it’s always relevant.
Writing by habit is often easier than waiting for the muse. When I feel out of practice in my writing, I find that starting again is an uphill climb, but setting a daily goal helps me get back into the flow. That goal could be just writing at all or a certain (achievable) number of words. That way, I know I’ve reached the goal not when I’ve hit a certain quality of writing, but when I sat down at the keys. Exercising my writing muscles (even when I’m afraid to) makes the creativity flow so much better than avoiding the ominous blank page!
[My writing advice is] that you have to finish. And I don’t mean that you have to finish everything that you write; I’ve got easily a dozen stories or more that are either unfinished or never made it past the first draft. But if you’re writing with the goal of sharing your stories with an audience, be that via fanfic or original fiction or what have you, I really think one of the best things you can do is learn to finish them. This quote about it in particular is one that I’ve held close to my heart for years:
“Finish. The difference between being a writer and being a person of talent is the discipline it takes to apply the seat of your pants to the seat of your chair and finish. Don’t talk about doing it. Do it. Finish.” — E. L. Konigsburg
I think my universal constant is that I write because I want to write, and I create for myself. That means not caring what other people think of the topics I write [about], as long as I’m behind whatever it is I’m writing. (It also means that I know when I’m forcing it and that I need to stop when writing becomes a chore rather than something for fun or a hobby.)
I think the one [piece of writing advice] that has been truest for me, regardless of what I’m working on, is that if something isn’t working [I should] step away from it for a bit and go work on something else. Usually if there’s a problem, I need to let it percolate in the back of my head instead of banging my head against a wall.
Focus on the feeling. If you can write the feeling so that it’s filling you from the tips of your toes to the hair on your head, then you’re on the right track. People don’t care half as much about the setting and wording as they do about the feeling.
When people say “step inside your character”, I think what they mean is “let your character feel and feel along with them until feelings come out on your page and stab your reader’s eyeballs until they’re feeling right along with you.” Everything else can be edited later, as long as you capture and express the emotions.
Fall in love with your characters. If you don’t love them, no one else will. And yes, this includes the antagonists and every single side character. And while you’re doing that, remember that every single character thinks they are the star of their own narrative, so let them tell you what it is, even if it’s not the main storyline. Let them come alive.
Wonderfully said, everyone! I’m going to add my answer to the question as well, because sometimes, I’ve needed this reminder far more than I’ll admit!
Don’t be afraid to write badly. Or poorly, or lazily. (Take that, Mr. Adverb-Hater.) There is a freedom I never realized before in allowing myself to write “badly:” to overuse certain words, phrases, and even styles as I write my rough draft. When I remember not to focus on the minutiae of a story, I can focus on the bigger problems, and fix the small ones later. Once the words are on the page, they can be fixed, but they have to be put on the page first. Write badly, edit, learn, get better, and write again.
Writing advice as a topic is a mix of controversial and contradictory; all advice should be applied in moderation rather than treated as an endless stream of syrup being poured over a stack of pancakes. (And now I want pancakes…) It’s always all right if advice doesn’t apply to you – but understanding why the advice is given is important. There are other authors out there who might need the advice that isn’t right for you.
When I set out to write this blog post, I had two goals. The first was I wanted to highlight how varied writing advice and tips can be. The second one was for everyone reading it to walk away with one piece of advice that they could hold to heart because it fit them. I accomplished the first, but the second is entirely up to every author reading this.
The one consistent theme through all of this advice comes down to two words: Keep Writing. Whether that’s daydreaming about your story or putting the words down on the page, write.
Last, but not least, I’ll leave you all with the same question, because I know there are more answers out there that we all would love to hear:
What is one piece of writing/writerly advice you hold as a Universal Constant? That no matter what you are writing, what you are working on, still holds true.
Determining whether to use “that” or “which” in a sentence can be a challenge. Sometimes, it’s obvious…
If you’re discussing what option to pick from among multiple options, “which” is correct.
Ex: “Which hat should I buy?”
If you’re indicating/identifying a specific, finite object, “that” is correct.
Ex: “I will buy that hat.”
However, it can appear more confusing if the sentence is more complex, or phrased unusually. But, it’s not actually more confusing – there’s a quick, easy rule to help determine when to use which option (use “which” there because we’re talking about multiple options!). In complex sentences, that/which usually are used with clauses. If you can remove the clause without altering the meaning or reducing the clarity of the sentence, then “which” is probably correct; otherwise, “that” is probably correct.
Ex. 1: “I will buy the hat that is green.”
Explanation: this sentence specifies, with a clause, that I am specifically buying the green hat. If that aspect of the sentence is removed, then necessary information is lacking (the person I’m speaking to will no longer know which hat I mean!). Grammatically, this is called a defining (or restrictive) clause – it’s a clause that defines the thing being described, and marks it as “this specific thing (as opposed to any other thing).”
Ex. 2: “I bought the hat, which is green, to wear to school.”
Explanation: the clause is an interjection which is not necessary to convey meaning, it simply add flavor. If it’s removed, the essential point of the sentence (that the hat was purchased to wear at school) remains. Grammatically, this is called a non-defining (or nonrestrictive) clause – a clause that isn’t necessary to define the thing, and when removed won’t have a major impact on the reader’s ability to know which thing is being described – “I’m interacting with this thing (and, coincidentally, this thing has this trait).”
So, just remember: if the clause is essential to conveying the full meaning of the sentence, use “that.” If the clause can be removed without impacting the sentence’s meaning, use “which.”
Have a writing or grammar question? Feel free to drop us an ask any time!