Grace's Mosaic Moments

Monday, May 16, 2011

Writing 101 - Nuts & Bolts, Part 1

Welcome to the second in my series, Writing 101. Please note I have added “How to Find the Word Count” to last week’s Writing 101 - Formatting. The subject came up in an exchange with one of my editing clients, and Formatting seemed the best, if slightly off-topic, place to put it.

Helpful Books. Every author should own at least one good book on punctuation and grammar, as the oddest things rear their ugly heads when writing fiction. Not to mention the simpler ones, like compound sentences needing a comma between the clauses!

The following books do not always agree with each other, but they are the best I have found so far. (Other recommendations will be much appreciated.) And certain publishers have veered away from the some of the rules in all three of them! But the fact remains that even if you were an A student in English, questions come up in writing fiction that were never covered in the classroom.

1. The “publisher’s bible” is The Chicago Manual of Style, a huge, expensive tome that will tell you more than you ever wanted to know about Punctuation. But it covers every last little detail.

2. The simplest punctuation and grammar book, the one you can walk into B&N and buy over the counter, is Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style. It’s small, easy to read, and covers most of the rock-bottom basics.

3. I was very enthusiastic about The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation by Jane Straus until I found some doubtful advice on dashes and ellipses. But these symbols are on the more esoteric end of punctuation, and it’s quite possible her PC keyboard can do things mine can’t. (Specifics later, under Dashes and Ellipses.) Nonetheless, there are many excellent things in this book, including explanations of words whose meanings continually baffle their users. For example, affect/effect, eminent/imminent, farther/further, etc. She also includes quizzes so you can test yourself.

A Brief Note on Style in Romance. Yes, writing romance has a few conventions you should consider when writing. Though not quite “nuts & bolts,” I ‘m including them here, as newbies should not start a book without being aware of them.

1. Keep paragraphs short. But also keep in mind that one-sentence paragraphs should be used for emphasis only. Do not write page after page of one-sentence paragraphs.

2. Run-on sentences, even when well-punctuated, are frequently confusing to the modern reader, who wants to absorb things fast, fast, fast. In certain sub-genres, such as traditional Regencies, a limited amount of run-on sentences are part of the style, but most readers tend to heave a book at the wall (or hit delete on their e-readers) if a book forces them to keep re-reading previous sentences because they didn’t quite catch it the first time around.

3. Run-on paragraphs, same comment as above, only even more obvious at a glance. It’s quite possible a potential reader will take one look at all those no-white-space pages while browsing the bookstore, or reading a sample on the Net, and never buy the book at all.

4. Repeat from Formatting blog: Avoid academic formatting, such as 3-space indents, block format, or semi-colons. An Author’s Note on your research and/or your other books may be included at the beginning or end of the book, but absolutely, positively, NO footnotes.

More on the “style” aspects of writing romance in a later chapter of Writing 101.

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Note: The examples below come from my own books, some from my traditional Regencies, some from my Romantic Suspense novels and a Futuristic.

COLONS AND SEMI-COLONS. As a general rule, avoid them in romance, substituting a period, comma, or dash. If you are writing historicals, you can get away with an occasional semi-colon. Colons in romance, however, are almost non-existent. Primary reason, I presume: both punctuation marks are considered too academic.

Example: Romance might be stalled, but one thing was now certain—Jeff’s goal stretched far beyond the confines of Ashley’s Choice.

PARENTHESES. For some reason, parentheses are also rare in romance. In most cases, parenthetical remarks are set off by dashes.

Example: Eager passengers—insanely eager passengers, Cass thought—thrust their hands high above their heads as the car paused on the brink of the downward plunge, heightening the tension.

DIALOGUE. The best, and most pleasant, way to learn how to punctuate dialogue is to read a lot of books by successful romance authors, forcing yourself to take a good look at the punctuation as you go along. But most dialogue is punctuated like the sample below.

Note: because Blogspot doesn't seem to recognize tabs, I was forced to use an extra space to indicate a new paragraph.


“You trained at Nav as well as Tac, Kiolani. Is that correct?”

“Yes, sir.” A hint of animation crossed her piquant face. “Navigation is my primary interest, captain. I spent a great deal of my time in the Archives perfecting my knowledge, not only of this sector but of our whole quadrant. I memorized coordinates for jumpgates that aren’t on Fleet maps, the location of dangerous meteor fields, black holes—” Kass broke off mid-sentence. “I beg your pardon, sir. I didn’t mean to babble.”

Tal nodded, thinking fast . . .

General comments on writing dialogue:

1. Start a new paragraph for each person speaking (see above). Try not to start a new paragraph in the middle of a character’s speech. This makes it difficult for a reader to know who is speaking. Exception: sometimes, if the character is talking at length, including moments of introspection, you need to paragraph within the speech just to keep it from looking like “too much black stuff” on the page! (Like those 19th c. classics you had to read in school.) If so, you do NOT CLOSE quotes at the end of the first paragraph, but you do OPEN quotes at the beginning of the next, as long as that person’s speech is continuous.

2. It is better to establish who is talking by some action or description at the beginning of the paragraph than constantly attach the “tags” of said, asked, replied, responded, etc., to every statement.

Example: Tal blew out a breath. “You know I have to take him with us? You understand that?”

3. Warning: Do not use full, stand-alone sentences for dialogue tags.

Wrong: “I knew you must be very brave,” Caroline spoke quietly to Emily’s bent head.
Right: “I knew you must be very brave.” Caroline spoke quietly to Emily’s bent head.

4. Dialogue must sound natural and fit the character who is speaking. (Okay, this isn’t punctuation, but it’s advice that can’t be said too often!)

COMMAS. To explore all the situations where you use commas, I refer you to the three books above. Below, you’ll find samples of the abuses I see the most when judging contest entries.

Compound sentences. If a sentence has two separate clauses (complete sentences that could stand alone by themselves), you need to put a comma before and, but, as (etc.).

Example: They were about to pick up a major client, and she and Michael Dillon would no longer be ships that passed in the night.

Exception: If the two clauses are very short, the comma may be left out.

Example: They had a mission, he needed to remember that.

BUT if a sentence has only one subject and two verbs; i.e., one person doing two different things, leave the comma out.

Example: She threw open the door to the spacious estate room and came to an abrupt halt.

DIRECT ADDRESS. For some inexplicable reason, I’ve been seeing a lot of manuscripts lately where only one of the two necessary commas is inserted around the name of the person being addressed. The samples below are correct.


“Don’t you know me, Mrs. Jenks?”

“It is you, Caroline, is it not?”

SENTENCE FRAGMENTS. Sentence fragments—those bits lacking a proper subject and verb that your high school English teacher frowned upon—are common in romance. They are used for emphasis; also for keeping run-on sentences from being exactly that. As long as a sentence fragment fits with the full sentence before, there should be no problem.

Example: She could still hear Uncle Malcolm’s mocking words four years ago as he grudgingly granted her three small rooms at the far end of the corridor, overlooking the parking lot and the ugly industrial building next door. An organic foods subsidiary within the confines of Van Dyne Industries’ global food distribution business? Absurd.

Note: The words in green are the full sentence that sets up the fragments. The hot pink sentences are both fragments, even though one is much longer than the other.

aragraphing for Emphasis (can be a complete sentence or a fragment).


His head screamed, his body moaned, as he forced himself to turn toward the door, toward the IV drip, the bank of monitors. There was a sign on the back of the door. Big letters. Letters that danced before his eyes. He squinted, focused, discovered they were gibberish. As were the letters on the monitor, the manufacturers’ names on the machines themselves.

If he didn’t feel so damn bad, he’d be scared.

QUOTE MARKS. (Absolute rule: Do not break it!) Single quotation marks are only used inside double quote marks. If you want quotes around a word in a narrative paragraph, use double quotes.

Example: “And then,” Martin told them, “the sailor cried, ‘Ahoy, maties!’”

(See also the expression “rule of thumb” in the paragraph below.)

QUOTATIONS—Quote Marks or Italics? A general “rule of thumb” (something not set in stone) is that if a quotation is longer than three lines, you should use italics instead of quote marks. This may be stretched to include even a very short letter, as with the salutation and signature, you’re almost always going to have more than three lines. Also, for longer quotations in italics, you should indent the margin on either side of the quotation, usually by five spaces.

MORE ON ITALICS. In general, use italics sparingly or they lose their impact. Italics are used for 1) emphasis; 2) direct thoughts; 3) long quotes, and 4) foreign words.

Example 1: “Plush breeches,” he reiterated in accents of loathing, “with rosettes, and a driving coat with buttons the size of butter plates.”

Example 2: Did the hulk’s blue eyes flicker when he learned Hugh was her brother? Probably nothing more than a reflection of the Florida sunshine. Concentrate on the good stuff, Cass. You saved a child, you’re being invited to meet an Arab prince. All part of a day’s work in the life of a WIS agent.

Note: At the beginning of the paragraph above, Cass is thinking in what’s called Introspection. No italics needed. But she switches to talking directly to herself in second person. If you are writing in third person and switch to first or second person, you must use italics.

Example 3 - a long quote - should be indented five spaces on each side.

My dear Abigail,
After Mr. James Wetherby, I must grant you a simple task. Jeremy Tomkin, Viscount Granby, lives in Bath, an easy journey. He is a sweet, simple man from whom you have nothing to fear. (I trust James was not a problem, though you must now realize why I insist that Jared accompany you at all times.) Lord Granby and I share a secret, and I wish him to know I will take it to my grave.

Use italics for foreign words. For example, without italics, “ton” is just 2000 pounds.

Example 4: There were those who considered Viscount Frayne a useless fribble, nothing more than the topmost whorl in the tail of the ton’s array of strutting peacocks.”

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Apostrophes, Dashes, and Ellipses will be included in Part 2 of Writing 101 - Nuts & Bolts.

Come on back, and please pass this blog along to any newbies who could benefit.

Thanks for visiting Grace's Mosaic Moments!


  1. Thank you for this information. It is very helpful. I've shared the link with several others.

  2. Thank you so much for this lesson! I have learned a lot from my mentor/editor along these lines and it has helped my writing immensely! Thanks for posting.

  3. Thank you so much for this wonderful information and reminder of what we "newbies" need to practice. I wasn't aware that I need to use quotation marks to OPEN when breaking a lengthy paragraph. I've just been continuing the dialogue and ending with quotation marks. I also need to work on run-on sentences......right now I'm trying to re-write to add more dialogue and less back-story. This has been helpful! I plan on copying/pasting this page to my desk-top for quick reference-thanks again.

  4. Thank you for sharing this with us. It will be helpful in writing my blog. God bless, Lloyd