The Toolbox -- The Important Bits

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Jo Zebedee

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dialogue punctuation

I'm sure it's in here a lot, but I thought I've been working on it a bit recently, and it is the only technical thing I'm confident at, so I'd stick up a post. (how brave am I? in the toolbox - garghh.)

If you are using a dialogue tag like he said, commented, asked, added, confirmed, then its a comma either before the dialogue:

He said, "You're getting ideas above your station, Springs."

or a comma at the end:

"You're getting ideas about your station, Springs," he said.

If the he said is in the middle of a sentence like this it's a run on, so a comma at each side

"I've noticed," he said, "that you're getting ideas above your station."

If its a disrupted speech that isn't a run on sentence ie is two seperate sentence then it's a comma before the dialogue tag and then a full stop and a capital to start the next sentence.

"I've noticed you're getting ideas above your station," he said. "I have to say, it's making me nervous."


action tags

If, instead of a dialogue tag you're using action at the start or end, the comma is replaced by a full stop. So:

"I'm getting ideas above my station." Springs stood up and made for the exit.

Or

Springs stopped at the door. "And now they're probably getting quite boring."

If you have an interrupted sentence with an action tag it's full stops.

"I'm getting near the end." She chewed her pen. "Which can't be a bad thing."

And if you have an exclamation mark or a question mark they take the place of either or the full stop.

So

"Above my station!" She flounched out.
or
"How dare you!" she exclaimed and flounched out.

And lastly, Harebrain's advice, which I use all the time for checking:
if it doesn't read right when you take out the actions or dialogue tags, the punctuation isn't right.

Right, need to lie down now. The toolbox... I'll need a year to recover. J.
 

The Judge

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There's sometimes a little confusion about the verb "to be" so here is a tidied version of a post in a thread where the issue arose earlier in the year.


Firstly, the verb "to be" can appear weak, so something like "She was at the door, waiting" might be better as "She stood at the door, waiting". Or it might not. It depends on what's happening around it in the rest of the sentence or paragraph. I'd always look for a stronger, more descriptive verb instead of "was", but it isn't the end of civilisation as we know it if it appears. Having said that, too many of anything in a paragraph can be ungainly and "was" is a particular offender in this respect.

Some sites will tell you that the use of eg "was" in a sentence is the passive voice. It isn't. Passive voice usually includes the verb "to be" in some form, but that's a wholly separate issue. The use of "by" is another tell-tale of passive voice eg "I was stunned by the revelations." There are good posts about this above, including Peter Graham's post at #21. The active voice is generally accepted as being more direct and forceful and... um... active, so it's a good idea to use it more than passive voice. If you're worried that your prose is riddled with passivity, search for "by" and see if that helps you locate clauses which could be changed to active eg "The revelations stunned me" (though in that particular case I'd go with the passive as it put the emphasis on me and my having been stunned).

And separate from both those is the use of "was" in something like "I was waiting at the door" which is merely the verb "to wait" in its past continuous tense as opposed to its simple past of "I waited at the door". Using the continuous form of a verb in present or past tense is perfectly acceptable, and can be a matter of preference eg "He was whistling as he ran upstairs" or "He whistled as he ran upstairs" both mean the same thing, and there's no right or wrong, though the latter is tauter. But continuous past can often be the best choice or necessary for the sentence eg "He was listening at the door when she burst into the room" shows he's been there some while, and means something very different from "He listened at the door when she burst into the room" -- apart from reading oddly, the latter implies that his listening is a habit whenever she dashes inside.
 
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Ihe

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I've always liked reading up on grammar and other technicalities of writing. I went over this thread at the start of my "fooliganing" (new word of mine, patent pending) here at the Chrons, and now skimmed it a second time, which confirms my initial perception: this is a gold mine. Thanks to everyone who contributes. Being the petty, envious wretch I am, I want to be part of this magnificent club, so I'll tackle a small thing I read somewhere, long time ago, that caught my eye because it's so simple you don't see it when it happens:

>Concurrency of participle phrases:

Participle phrases (they have -ing verbs) with multiple actions taking place in the span of a sentence make these actions simultaneous (concurrent). This can quicken pace and add a sense of liveliness to the sentence. But beware of the wrong use of concurrency, which usually happens by pairing 2 actions that are not truly simultaneous, ie: Kicking him in the shins, Clara ran away.--These two actions cannot be happening simultaneously. You can't kick someone and at the same time put distance between you and them. It would be more correct to make the action sequential: you kick, then you run.

And now, the correct way to use concurrency: Kicking him in the shins, Clara cursed him.--Both of these actions can be happening at the same time.

This might be a finicky rule, and God knows I do it, and I've seen pros do it as well, but nevertheless, it's something to at least consider.



Now that I've added my little grain of "knowledge" to the grammatical mountain, I hope to do a longer post on pace next, which I've been researching on-and-off for some time.
 

The Judge

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Info-dumps

There's at least one post here about info-dumping, but I thought another wouldn't go amiss in the circumstances.

Usually this relates to the dumping of detail about the backstory or -- particularly in SF -- the technology. It also, though, encompasses excessive world-building detail. We are all guilty of it. We all think "This is really cool stuff about the world, I've got to get this in" or "This is really important for the reader to know, I've got to put this in". Sometimes we may even be right. But...

Think of information for your story -- whether world-bulding, backstory or technology -- as an iceberg. What you should have is a great mountain of detail, but only a very small part of it should be on view to the reader, with the vast bulk of it lying unseen below the surface. A story which has only that small amount above surface and nothing beneath is liable to be unstable, and drift all over the place with no depth or characterisation. Conversely, a story which has the whole iceberg above water is liable to overwhelm the reader and frighten her off.

So the first thing to do is decide what is truly important for the reader and must be on the surface, and what should be kept out of sight. Almost certainly, what is vitally important, without which the story cannot make sense, will be much less than you might think.

Having said that, a story which only has the bare plot and no adornment is going to be flat, so some world-building and extra detail is helpful even if not strictly necessary. So that's the second thing to decide -- what adds to the story's texture without overloading it and making it unreadable.

Having set out what should be included, you must then work out how to include it.

If it's stuff that's important, so the fact the ion-cannons can't perform when at warp -- which means they cannot kill the baddie when they need to -- then get it out there in as few words as possible and never in a "As you know, Dave" conversation. Don't give the reasons why it isn't possible unless that's also a plot point (or you are writing hard/military SF when every single piece of technology must, apparently, be described in loving detail...), at least not at first. Drop the reasons why in a later scene, so you're not stopping the flow of the story all at one go.

If it's stuff that is just world building then "The birds' feathers were red and gold" gets the information out there, but is, frankly, boring. Something like "Sunlight glinted off the red and gold of the birds' feathers" is still pretty basic, but there is immediately more life in it. Even better would be something to reflect the POV character's emotions -- so if she is happy, the red and gold feathers fill her with joy; if she's sad, the gold is dulled; if she's fearful, the red is like drops of blood. Or make the birds reflect what is happening within the story, or prefigure what might happen -- if there is a romantic subplot then "As the male bird performed his courtship dance, the red and gold of his feathers gleamed"; if there is war coming "The two male birds tore at each other in a frenzy, red and gold feathers shredded and stained with blood".

Build your iceberg. Make it solid and thick and very big. Then submerge it, and allow only the tip of it to show in the novel, drawing the interested reader towards it, but making it clear there are depths, huge interesting depths, which at a later stage you might allow them to see if they dare to take to the water and dive in.
 

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In the "how to write" books, one of the seven elements is, description. How do we not info-dump when writing descriptive prose?
Five or six posts above this one is one from me headed "Info-dumps" which gives some advice on this point.

People have different levels of tolerance for description, but for most purposes having more than a couple of paragraphs at any one time is likely to lose your reader -- we simply can't emulate Thomas Hardy in The Return of the Native with the entire first thousand pages devoted to Egdon sodding Heath.**

I'd always suggest you intersperse description with something happening. If someone is catapulted into the middle of a rain forest, don't spend pages describing the trees and lianas and what not while he's just standing around doing nothing. Instead, have him hiking through, chopping lianas down, nearly treading on giant spiders, blundering into huge butterflies or whatever. Action nearly always trumps description.


** OK, a thousand might be a slight exaggeration, but it certainly felt like it when I was having to plough through the damn thing at school.
 

Jo Zebedee

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I'll pick up on the one aspect of the Judge's post I understand and talk about filter words.

These are the likes of 'she heard', 'she saw', 'he felt'.

Now, in some point of views these are fine. If you want any kind of distance, they can be useful for adding it. Also, if you're writing horror, that classic, "a breeze touched her cheek; it felt like the air from a crypt" is totally acceptable for foreshadowing.

But! If you're writing any kind of close point of view, be it first or third, then it is the enemy of closeness.

Instead of

Jo heard the traffic swishing past

The traffic swished past

is much closer, and stronger.

There are devices which we use that lead us to filter words, like walking into a room and glancing around in order to describe the room. That's really distancing. Instead filter that room through the scene. Have your character nearly knock the vase over, rather than looking and seeing the vase they're about to chuck at someone in the next scene.

Words that often are filters:

saw, see, looked, glanced, took in,
felt, sensed, noticed
heard

Where you notice them:
Does the filter have a purpose? Then keep it.
Is it there just to be a filler from one action to the next? Rewrite and make that transition smoother.
Does it lead into a description of what was saw, heard, felt - remove the filter. It's not needed.
 

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COPYRIGHT

This is a précis of a talk I've given about copyright, which can be heard on the Official Chrons podcast, season 1 episode 1 -- more detail here Chronscast Season 1 Episode 1 - Northern Lights with Stephen Palmer

Copyright is a form of intellectual property providing economic and moral rights over the use of original artistic work, which covers anything that’s written. It governs, for example, who may reproduce the work or adapt it for performance. Although most countries have similar laws about copyright, there are differences in detail between legal systems and states – if you need to take matters further, always check with a lawyer practising in your locality.

Copyright in your own work:
  • Copyright is inherent, so is there automatically in every country which is a signatory to the Berne convention, which includes the Americas and most of Europe and Australasia
  • There is no need to register copyright with any commercial organisation – it doesn't provide any further protection
  • Make sure you can prove you wrote the work and when you wrote it eg keep various drafts showing the progress of the work
  • For those in the US it is advantageous to register copyright with the US Copyright Office, as legal actions for works of US origin can’t be started in US courts without it
  • Copyright can’t of itself stop people “stealing” your work, and for most writers trying to enforce rights through the courts will simply be throwing money away
Copyright as it applies to using someone else’s work:
  • The Berne Convention allows for a “right to quote” provided the quote is of reasonable length (“reasonable” will vary from case to case as well as country to country) and the copyrighted extract is clearly acknowledged and fully referenced
  • The UK and some commonwealth countries have a legal concept of fair dealing – in the US a similar concept of fair use – whereby the law looks at how much is quoted and for what purpose, and there are often exemptions allowed for parody, pastiche or satire
  • Since every case will vary on its facts, it’s impossible to confirm exactly how much may be quoted of any particular work, but UK courts take into account whether the market for the original work is affected and the amount quoted is appropriate and not substantial – “substantial” being defined by quality as well as quantity
  • Song lyrics don’t have special protection, but music publishers are litigious:
    • to avoid any possible risk of a lawyer’s letter, don’t use any lyric unless it’s in the public domain
    • if quoting more one line of a lyric (or more than a reasonable amount of a poem or other work) the consent of the copyright holder will almost certainly be needed, and for song lyrics, that will come at a cost
  • Whether work is in public domain depends on what is being protected and where the copyright is claimed but for written work in the UK it’s 70 years from the author’s death (with two very specific exceptions); for the US and Australia it’s more complicated but is mostly the same 70 years after the author’s death
  • Some things are not protected by copyright
    • titles, not even song titles
    • words/phrases in common usage
    • ideas – only the expression of those ideas is protected
  • BUT! Though copyright might not extend to these things, they might be trademarked by their authors (eg "Discworld") which prevents unauthorised use of the words/phrases


EDIT: And for copyright as it relates to fan-fiction, here is an interesting article from a US perspective The World of Fan Fiction - Where Creative Expression and Copyright Collide - Sidebar Saturdays
 
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The Judge

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DEFAMATION

This is a summary of a talk I gave on to how protect oneself from defamation actions which went out in the May episode of the Chrons official podcast (more details of the podcast and a link to it here Chronscast Season 1 Episode 5 - Watchmen with Tade Thompson) which was itself based on cases I discussed in the March episode here Chronscast Season 1 Episode 3 - An American Werewolf In London with Richard Sheppard (And in that Chrons thread I also give links to those cases.)

There is no universal definition of libel, with vast differences in how it’s defined and dealt with in the different legal systems around the world, so it’s imperative to get specific legal advice on your particular case if problems arise. But broadly speaking in the Anglosphere, a defamatory statement is one which tends to lower a person in the estimation of right-thinking members of society, or damages his/her reputation, or tends to make a person shunned or avoided or despised or ridiculed. Since it’s a subjective matter, “defamatory” can involve actions/opinions you personally don’t find offensive.

Using real-life people, companies or commodities
  • don’t… that is don’t use real people etc if you can achieve the same effect by creating your own
  • keep to the factual record, ensuring everything written is true
  • literal truth isn’t enough if the context implies something different
  • with invented situations, be consistent with reality and likelihood
  • if writing anything demeaning, make it subjective opinion from another character, not objective fact in narrative
  • avoid inadvertent libel – check what you’ve written for unintended innuendo and insinuation
  • don’t ascribe morally questionable motives for real or invented actions
  • with companies, don’t suggest they’re complicit in or condoning of your characters’ illegalities, nor imply defects or worse in the commodities
  • consider taking matters to extremes by way of parody or satire, in which case the more outrageous the better, as the less chance it will be seen as real and therefore actionable (a risky strategy, though)
Basing invented characters on real people
  • always use a disclaimer eg “The characters in this novel are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.” (For a memoir, check out the disclaimer in Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs.)
  • a disclaimer is useless if a character is too clearly modelled on someone – the more heads of comparison between them, and the more distinctive those heads, the greater the risk
  • don’t take someone’s life story and use it largely unaltered
  • don’t use highly personal characteristics
  • consider changes not only to name and appearance but as to ethnicity, personality, profession, location and history
  • using an enemy/someone you dislike carries more risk than using a friend, since it’s easier for a court to infer bad faith and a desire to offend or ridicule
  • wait until the person dies – but beware of jurisdictions where it’s possible to defame the dead, and of inadvertently libelling his/her family or friends who are still alive
Inventing a character from scratch
  • superficial similarities with a real person aren’t actionable
  • the more detail given, the greater risk that by chance the character resembles someone real, so consider using common names with minimal description and backstory
  • to prove you’ve taken reasonable steps to avoid inadvertent libel, Google your characters’ names and check locations/professions if necessary, making changes as needed and keeping records of the checks
  • update all and any checks before publishing
Dealing with complaints
  • act speedily
  • don’t belittle the complainant or scorn the possible distress involved
  • if at fault, don’t allow the issue to escalate:
    • apologise
    • offer a retraction
    • if possible, make changes/add errata slips, or re-record/over-dub audio or visuals
 

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PRIVACY AND OTHER RELATED ISSUES

This is a summary of a talk I gave in the July episode of the Chrons official podcast on other problems which can arise when using real-life people in your stories – much more detail is given in the Chronscast, so do listen to it. Chronscast Season 1 Episode 7 - Mythago Wood with John Jarrold

As ever, it’s important to get specific legal advice on your particular case if problems arise since the laws in the matters mentioned below vary widely across the world, particularly in the details of what actions can be brought.

Privacy in England and Wales
  • historically protected by the tort of breach of confidence which required a duty of confidentiality to exist (eg in sexual relationships), which has since been extended to prevent intrusion into people’s lives
  • the 2008 Max Mosley case confirmed the law applies to any private information where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy, as long as it’s worthy of protection
  • in 2021 the Duchess of Sussex successfully claimed for “misuse of private information” in connection with the letter she wrote to her father
  • the revealed information/activity must have some expectation of privacy and that expectation must be balanced against freedom to publish
  • factors the courts will take into account:
    • the attributes of the claimant (eg a public figure will have less expectation of privacy than a private individual)
    • the claimant’s previous conduct (eg someone who has publicly condemned such action in the past will likely have less protection)
    • the nature of the revealed activity (eg something of an intimate nature will have more protection)
    • where it was happening (eg if it was somewhere easily accessible to the public it will have less expectation of privacy)
    • the purpose of the intrusion (eg if it’s to disclose criminality or hypocrisy less protection will be given to the claimant)
    • whether disclosure contributes to a public debate of general interest
  • the claimant doesn’t have to prove that harm has been caused
  • unlike defamation, truth is no defence
  • to avoid claims – don’t reveal private information without very good reason
Privacy elsewhere
  • Australia also currently relies on breach of confidence, but ALRC report recommends a statutory cause of action for serious invasion of privacy
  • in NZ the tort of “wrongful publication of private facts” has been extended to cover “intrusion into seclusion”
  • laws vary across the US
    • eg in Georgia claims can be brought for “public disclosure of private facts” if they're highly offensive and not matters of public concern
    • embarrassment perhaps not usually enough to found an action for invasion of privacy
    • harm may need to be proved
    • there must be some expectation that the revealed activity/information would remain private
False light invasion of privacy
  • a separate cause of action in the US the exact scope and requirements of which vary from state to state
  • in some jurisdictions it relates not to a revelation of something private that has happened, but to a statement that is untrue
    • eg in Georgia, it’s a non-defamatory falsehood which places the plaintiff in a highly offensive false light
    • perhaps used as a legal technique alongside defamation actions where it’s not clear-cut if the falsehood is in fact defamatory
  • in other jurisdictions it’s the revelation of something which is strictly true but gives a wrongful false impression
  • to avoid claims
    • ensure everything written is verifiably true, and not purely in a technical sense
    • leave no opening for false impressions to arise
The right to exploit one’s own image/the right to publicity
  • don’t use someone else’s image or name without consent by way of promotion or endorsement of your work
  • possibly even simply using a celebrity as a character in your work could create a problem in the US?
  • don’t fabricate quotes from famous people to promote your work (possible get-out with parody/satire, but risky)
Lèse-majesté
  • “violated majesty” ie impugning the dignity of a sovereign, which can also include royalty, heads of state and even public officials
  • still a crime in some countries, even in Europe (not in the UK, nor in the US though)
  • can carry severe penalties eg in Asia
  • insults can be enough to create the offence, and "insult" can be interpreted very widely
 
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