Common Punctuation Mistakes

With so many rules and different style guides, it’s hard to know what punctuation to use where in your writing. From comma splices to overuse of ellipses, there are a lot of mistakes you can make that cause you to look less than your best. I know—we all make mistakes. The mistakes I’m going to list below are based on The Chicago Manual of Style, as that is the most commonly cited style guide for writing, editing, and publishing fiction. There are different rules based on the various guides, so be wary of what type of writing you’re working on.

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  1. Comma Splices
    Comma splices happen when two independent clauses are joined by a comma. For example:

John ate dinner with us last night, we had a good time.

You could write this idea differently in a couple different ways.

John ate dinner with us last night. We had a good time.
OR
John ate dinner with us last night; we had a good time.

2. Incorrect Use of Hyphens, En Dashes, and Em Dashes
Yes, there is a difference between the three.

Hyphens are used to join two or more words together, such as when two or more words are connected and are modifying another word (to avoid confusion). A good example is up-to-date. Another good example, as given in the CMS, is to compare small animal hospital with small-animal hospital. The first indicates a regular animal hospital that is small in size. The second means a hospital that is only for small animals. It’s important to note that Chicago drops the hyphen when the modifying phrase comes after the noun. For example:

That well-known book is big right now.
OR
That book is well known and big right now.

The hyphen can also be used as separators, such as when you have a character spelling out something:

“My name is Skylar. That’s s-k-y-l-a-r.”

En Dashes typically connect (or deal with) numbers. (Words? Not nearly as often.) It means up to and including (or through) with continuing numbers. It can also indicate an unfinished range of numbers. Note that there should be no spaces around the dash. (Not in Chicago Style, anyway.)

John lived 1920–2005.
Barry Wolfe (1965–) or Barry Wolfe (b. 1965)

According to the CMS, the en dash can sometimes replace a hyphen in the use of compound words, as long as it makes sense or there isn’t already a hyphen in one of the words.

Em Dashes are probably the most well known of all the dashes. They separate an explanatory element in a sentence—instead of commas, parentheses, or colons.

I bought three antique books—all Nancy Drew Mystery Stories that are first or early editions—at the bookshop down the road.

You can also use em dashes around dialogue to indicate sudden breaks. If the break belongs outside the dialogue, then the em dashes go outside the quotation marks. For example:

“I didn’t know, and”—her voice grew hoarse with desperation—”there was no way I could’ve known.”

Bear in mind that you should never use a comma, colon, or semicolon directly in front of an em dash. A question mark or an exclamation point, however, can be used in such a manner. You can also use em dashes in place of commas for a more stylistic type of writing:

“How could you—” began Catalina, but Rob cut her off.

3. Overuse of Commas
This mistake seems to be a commonly cited one, but it’s one I personally tend to make when writing first drafts. I apparently have an affinity for commas, which means I have to carefully edit my writing during revisions for excess punctuation. To give an example:

The girl, however, started to get dressed, pulling on jeans and a t-shirt, but, her boyfriend ignored her, all while lying in bed.

The above is a huge mess of a sentence that needs to be broken up. While it’s (technically) grammatically correct, it makes for quite awkward reading with so many pauses. You could fix it up several different ways, but one definite edit is to split this up into more than one sentence:

The girl started to get dressed, pulling on jeans and a t-shirt. Her boyfriend ignored her, all while lying in bed.

4. Not Using Enough Punctuation
Similar to comma splices, I mean run-on sentences. Independent clauses that aren’t joined by a conjunction need to be separated by proper punctuation, whether that’s a semicolon or a period. Don’t use a comma to separate two independent clauses unless a conjunction divides them. By this, I mean the two independent clauses should have separate subjects and verbs, and the clauses should be separated by a word such as and, but, if.

One of my Nancy Drew books is first edition it’s dated 1948 and the dust jacket is still on!

This example definitely needs to be split up, such as:

One of my Nancy Drew books is first edition; it’s dated 1948, and the dust jacket is still on!

5. Not Using the Oxford Comma
The Chicago Manual of Style adheres to the use of the Oxford comma. It’s the last comma in a series that comes before a conjunction. For example:

Oxford comma: I studied Spanish, Latin, and French.
Without Oxford comma: I studied Spanish, Latin and French.

There’s a ton of debate over this one little comma, depending on which style guide you’re following. Following the CMS? Use the Oxford comma.

The beautiful—and frustrating—thing about English is that there are so many variations of the rules. Writing is such a subjective and stylistic art, meaning we all write in our own way. What punctuation faux pas have you made in your own writing? (We all make mistakes.) I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

Crafting Characters: Tips for Creating People

No, I don’t mean procreation when I say “creating” people—that’s a whole separate topic we’re not going to get into. Here, we’re talking about making up characters for fictional stories. What’s great about creating characters for a story is that humans are so diverse. We, as people, are so utterly interesting as a species. From our personalities to our tastes and interests, we vary so much as people. My husband and I are total opposites. He loves sports. I hate sports, mostly because I can’t understand all the rules, for the most part. (Except for swimming—I was a competitive swimmer back in my younger days. Woo, breaststroke!) I’m a violinist and a music geek; he doesn’t understand my obsession with “Carnival of the Animals” by Camille Saint-Saëns or with Yo-Yo Ma. (Actually, the reason why I’m such a big fan of the cellist and of violinist Joshua Bell is that my dad used to take me to see them perform with the Philadelphia orchestra.) You get my point. People vary greatly.

What does that mean for your storytelling? Your characters should be just as diverse, especially if you’re writing human characters. I’m not a Sci-Fi or Fantasy writer, so I can’t speak on creating characters in those genres (characters such as aliens, elves, hobbits, et cetera). However, I do write women’s fiction, romance (kind of a blend), and am currently working on a mystery novel. I love to read mysteries and suspense, so it was only natural to move my writing into that genre. Writing romance/women’s fiction, however, did help me study how people interact with each other.

Anyway, back to creating characters. Here are some tips for crafting your characters.

  1. Characters should have flaws.
    Humans aren’t perfect, which means your characters shouldn’t be perfect, either. Your main character’s flaws should help fuel the conflict. Examples of flaws could include greed, jealousy, prejudice, dishonesty, or arrogance.
  2. Characters should have strong motivations.
    There should be a reason why your characters act the way they do, whether it’s your antagonist looking to conquer the world because his life is being threatened or a protagonist simply seeking companionship. For a fantastic example of strong character motivation, check out one of my recent posts, A Case Study in Character Motivation: Legally Blonde. A great source for motivation ideas is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
  3. Make your characters memorable.
    Don’t just write mundane descriptions such as hair color and eye color. Do they have vivid scars? A certain gait? (Think Penguin/Oswald Cobblepot in the show Gotham, based on the Batman series.) Funny preoccupation? (Like Ed Nygma and his fascination with riddles, as he ends up becoming The Riddler. I’m on a Gotham kick, if you can’t tell.) Ask yourself, “What makes my character stand out?”
  4. Each character should be well-developed.
    Every human has their own unique background. In my debut novel, The Days Without You, Kylie is losing her mother to cancer and already has a history of tragic loss. She has her own interests and aspirations (such as a surfing and her desire to be a crime journalist), as well as a reluctance toward her budding relationship with Adam due to her history with past relationships. What type of childhood did your characters have? Was it happy or sad? What are their personal goals? Their likes or dislikes? Make your characters as uniquely human as real people are.
  5. Characters should be diverse.
    This, of course, will depend somewhat on your setting (such as a monastery or a convent, for example, in which case your characters would all be monks or nuns, although there still would be some diversity amongst them). What I’m trying to say is that the world isn’t made up of all straight, white, neurotypical men. People have disabilities, illnesses (mental and physical), ailments, different sexual preferences, different physical appearances. Don’t make all your characters the same, and don’t only go into detail on the characters who aren’t straight, white dudes.

I suppose the ultimate idea I’m trying to convey here is that you should make your characters as real as possible. Stop and think about what it’s like to be human. Humans vary. We are diversely different as a species, and there’s no right or wrong way to be human. (And, if you’ve never listened to Carnival of the Animals by Saint-Saëns, I highly recommend it, especially the movements titled “The Elephant” and “The Swan”. Seriously, double bass never gets any love.) Happy writing!

How Long Should My Novel Be?

If you’re just starting out, or maybe you need a refresher, you might be wondering about the proper length of a novel. The short answer? Somewhere around 80,000 to 100,000. This is the standard, expected length for a first novel, especially if you’re looking to traditionally publish via an agent. Although anything over 40,000 words is typically considered a novel, the expected minimum length is 50,000.

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Again, that’s the short answer. Your word count will vary based on the genre you’re writing. For example, genres that involve a lot of world-building (read: Science Fiction and Fantasy (and we’ll include Historical Fiction in that, too)) will require a higher word count. Why? Because the world the characters live in needs to be believable, or what’s known as suspension of disbelief.

I want to note that these figures are based on standards established by the publishing industry authorities. While it’s true you should, at least, aim for a standard word count for your particular genre, keep in mind that every novel will vary; don’t be discouraged or frustrated or upset if your final product doesn’t meet or exceeds industry expectations. The following numbers are approximations or “comfortable” ranges.

General Fiction: 50,000 to 100,000

Sci-Fi & Fantasy: 90,000 to 120,000

Romance (Mainstream): 50,000 to 90,000

Sub-genre Romance: 40,000 to 100,000

Historical Fiction: 80,000 to 100,000 (but more so on the 100,000 side)

Suspense & Mystery: 70,000 to 90,000

Young Adult: 40,000 to 80,000

Middle Grade: 25,000 to 40,000

You’ll find varying numbers on different websites, as different publishers and experts (I don’t claim to be a publishing expert, just a thirty-something girl with a degree in English and writing fiction.) have different ideas on the “proper” word count for a novel based on its genre. Your novel may differ from , but if you’re looking to traditionally published, be prepared to explain or justify your reasons for going outside the expected word count. But again, every story has its own word count, so write your story naturally—the way you write.

A Case Study in Character Motivation: Legally Blonde

Image Credit: Photo by fotografierende from Pexels

Character motivation. It’s an important part when creating a character, especially your protagonist or antagonist (if you have a physical antagonist), as this is what will drive your characters’ actions. Now, your character’s motivation doesn’t have to remain the same throughout the story. It can change as your character learns and grows with each major plot point.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a useful tool when crafting motivations. It’s commonly referenced when talking about character motivations. For a more in-depth read of these needs, head on over to ThoughtCo.

Tier 1 covers physiological needs, including water, food, warmth or shelter.

Tier 2 includes safety needs, such as the need for financial or emotional security, or the need for freedom from fear.

Tier 3 is the need for love and belonging, including friendships and intimate relationships.

Tier 4 covers the need for esteem, like the need for a feeling of a job well done, a sense of accomplishment.

Tier 5 is for self-actualization, the need to achieve one’s full potential, whether that includes hobbies or a career. It’s what drives us to do better in both our jobs and our creative abilities.

Image Source: https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html

The movie Legally Blonde is a great example of strong character motivations. If you’ve never seen Legally Blonde with Reese Witherspoon, I highly recommend it. Not only does it portray strong character motivations and the plot is constructed well. If you want a fantastic explanation of the three-act story structure, head on over to K.M. Weiland’s The Secrets of Story Structure (Complete Series) at Helping Writers Become Authors. She not only explains all the important plot points in a three-act structure, she gives fantastic examples from film (such as one of my favorites, It’s a Wonderful Life).

But, enough about plot structure. We’re here to talk about character motivations.

Legally Blonde starts out with Elle Woods, a blonde, seemingly ditzy, well-to-do fashion major and president of her sorority, Delta Nu, getting ready to be proposed to by her boyfriend, Warner, who is preparing to head to Harvard as a law student. At least, she’s expecting a proposal. Instead, he dumps her, based on his own motivation to be a senator by 30. He explains to her that he needs to “marry a Jackie, not a Marilyn.” Warner’s breakup with Elle is the Inciting Event.

Elle is absolutely devastated and heartbroken at being dumped. Her friends try to cheer her up by taking her to get her nails done. There, at the salon, Elle flips through a magazine while waiting her turn. In the magazine, she sees Warner’s older brother and his new fiancée, a first-year Yale law student. She realizes a law student is what she “needs to become” in order to win back Warner. Here, we see the Key Event.

With renewed determination, she sets out learning how to get herself into Harvard Law as a student. Now, her motivation is to win Warner back. She ends up with a 179 on her LSATs (the highest you can get is 180), and the admission board decides, “Elle Woods, welcome to Harvard.” This is the First Plot Point.

Now at Harvard, Elle goes about trying to get Warner back. Early on, however, she learns that Warner is engaged to his former prep-school girlfriend, Vivian Kensington. She’s doing terribly in her classes, as her focus isn’t on school, but on Warner. Elle overhears Vivian talking about a party and asks about it; Vivian lies and tells Elle it’s a costume party. Showing up to the party in a “bunny” costume, Elle is made fun of by Vivian, but Elle has a smart retort. She then finds Warner, who brings up how busy he is with classes and brings up school. She replies, “Oh, I know, I can’t imagine doing all this and Callahan’s internship next year.” He tells her that she’ll never get the grades to qualify for one of the internship spots, that she’s not smart enough.

“I’m never going to be good enough for you, am I?” she says before walking away. Herein lies the Midpoint. This is a pivotal moment in the movie, as Elle’s motivation changes. She’s determined to prove that she can succeed in law school and that she is smart enough. She buys a laptop, studies hard, and begins to do well in all her classes. She is no longer reacting to being dumped by Warner; she’s taking action to prove herself, showing Maslow’s need for self-fulfillment.

The movie goes on, and Elle is given a coveted spot as one of Callahan’s first-year interns helping out with a murder trial. I won’t give away the ending, for those of you who have never watched it, as we’ve already covered the two main character motivations of Elle Woods seen in Legally Blonde. To sum up: first, she wants to win back her boyfriend, Warner. When Warner tells her she’s not smart enough, we see Elle’s second motivation: to prove herself in law school.

There’s so much more to this movie than what described above, which is why it’s one of my favorites. It’s structured well, has strong character motivations, and, overall, is just a fun movie to watch.

Style Guides: Which One Should You Use?

There are many different style guides per country. But what is the purpose of a style guide? Consistency and clarity. They maintain a standard style of writing. You’re probably already familiar with Modern Language Association’s handbook or “MLA”, as it is commonly used in academic writing. There are, however, other commonly used style guides, depending on the type of writing you’re doing.

  1. The Chicago Manual of Style
    If you’re writing a book, editing in the publishing industry, or are a publisher yourself, this is your go-to. The Chicago Manual of Style is currently on its 17th edition and is the standard for publishing fiction and non-fiction books. For a watered-down version of CMOS, check out Turabian Style, which is aimed at students writing academic papers.
  2. The Associated Press Stylebook
    Better known as “AP Style”, this style guide is used frequently in journalistic settings. It’s essentially the media bible for newspapers, magazines, and broadcast writers. We even use it at my work in the marketing industry. The aim of the Associated Press Stylebook is to keep writing clean and concise.
  3. MLA Handbook
    As previously mentioned, the Modern Language Association Handbook is your big go-to for academic writing. It’s frequently used in teaching and gives guidelines for citing sources in research papers. The MLA Handbook has been updated recently to take on the challenges of today’s world, such as web publication, and it is currently in its 8th publication.
  4. The Elements of Style
    The Elements of Style has been around for quite some time, since 1918, although it was revised later by Charlotte’s Web author E.B. White. Its aim to for writers to craft clean, concise prose, without all the fluff. Brevity is the name of the game. The guide itself is short and to the point, and it is beloved by many authors and writers.

While there are other style guides out there, the above are your main four (for U.S. style guides, at least). Many of these guides are available online, meaning you don’t have to reference a big, heavy book whenever you’re writing or editing.

Happy writing!

Writing Tips for Beginners

It’s possible to learn how to write. Writing is not some inherent skill you’re born with. Let me correct that — writing well isn’t a skill you’re born with. It takes a ton of practice, patience, and perseverance. You know why well-known authors are famous? They didn’t give up. They believed in themselves and their work. J.K. Rowling was rejected countless times before Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published. Now look at the success of the series!

If you’re thinking of getting into creative writing, let me forewarn you: it’s not an easy thing. And, it’s more than a small hobby; it’s a lifestyle. That’s just my take on it, however. Over the years, I’ve learned a lot. Getting a Bachelor’s degree in English and Creative Writing helped my knowledge of the craft. Not saying you have to have a degree in it to be successful, just saying it helped me, personally.

Already into writing? Going back to your roots as a beginner can be helpful, I’ve found. I try not to be overly confident in my writing nowadays, like I was when I first starting writing novels. When I finished the very first draft of my very first manuscript, I thought it was a masterpiece. I was so proud to have finally written a full-length novel that I rushed into self-publishing. Looking back on that manuscript, I cringe. It’s now safely stored away in the vaults of my computer files, locked away for my eyes only. Perhaps I’ll revisit it one day.

  1. Practice, practice, practice.
    Practice is essential. Think of the adage “Practice makes perfect.” It’s almost like playing a sport or a musical instrument — you have to practice if you want to be any good at it. You don’t just wake up one day as Joshua Bell and play Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major Op. 61 on a multi-million dollar Stradivarius violin. The same principal applies to writing. You have to practice writing to grow as a writer.
  2. Don’t wait for inspiration to strike.
    Good writers write each and every day. They don’t wait for inspiration to strike; they just sit down at their computer (or tablet, notebook, etc.) and just get it done. If you wait for inspiration, you may be waiting for a long time. I’ve found that figuring out my plot structure before I start writing a story helps me get moving a little more quickly.
  3. Read. A lot.
    As the great Stephen King put it, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or tools) to write.” Being a good reader is essential to being a good writer. Writing in a particular genre? Read that genre. That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to limit yourself to that genre — variety is the spice of life — but be sure to read in your chosen genre.
  4. Have some patience.
    A quality story won’t just happen overnight. Writing a book is a long haul. A good novel takes lots of rewrites and editing, and that’s all part of the writing process.
  5. Start out small.
    This goes along with practice. Don’t start out trying to compose your opus magnum. Start out small. Try writing short stories or scenes, or play around with building worlds or characters.
  6. Try to set aside time each day for writing.
    By making writing a regular habit, it’s easier to stay in the groove of it. I know, I know. Some days, life just gets in the way. It happens to all of us. But no matter what, try to write each and every day.
  7. Set goals.
    I find it helpful to have a word goal when I sit down and write, as opposed to writing aimlessly. It gives you something to aim or shoot for. If you’ve never done (or attempted, at least) NaNoWriMo or Camp NaNoWriMo, try it sometime! It’s an easy way to set simple goals for a month at a time.
  8. Play around with POV.
    Try writing in various styles and POVs to find your groove. The first manuscript I wrote was in first person, preterite tense, but quickly realized I prefer to write in third person limited.

What tips do you find useful as a writer?