Sunday, October 28, 2012

History is more than wallpaper

First, let me preface this blog by saying this is my opinion. My blog, my opinion. Some will disagree with me.

I like a historical novel to have real historical details included. Characters who act as if they lived in that time, subject to the rules and traditions of that period. Genuine historical facts: buildings that existed at that time, or entirely made-up scenes but ones that are time-appropriate.

I do not like Ancient Romans who do up the zipper in their pants, Renaissance women who go to the bank and empty their account before leaving home, or nineteenth century heroes who hop on eBay to buy a gift for the heroine.

I understand that authors are creative people and have no problem at all with those who invent their own worlds and mix up whatever details they feel like throwing into the book and stirring together. As long as the world they create is consistent, as far as l’m concerned they can do whatever they want.

But when someone writes a historical novel, I want genuine, researched historically accurate places, people, situations and characters. Not a bit of historical wallpaper pasted on here and there. Wikipedia isn’t one hundred percent accurate, but it takes only a fraction of a second to check whether zippers were invented yet, whether an ordinary house had electricity, and to bring up pretty pictures of the clothing of that day.

If you’re the kind of author who can’t be bothered checking facts, but like the idea of olde-worlde things, do your readers a favor and write fantasy. Please.

Helen Woodall

Helen is available to line edit and/ or content edit fiction and non-fiction. Rates on application.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Watch out for those zeugmas

When used intentionally a zeugma may be witty and clever. When used unintentionally the reader may also fall out of her chair laughing. But at the author, not at the story.

A zeugma joins two parts of a sentence together with a single verb or noun that may only refer to one of them (that’s an oops!) or may refer to both of them in a different way. (That’s when it may be very clever, or then again it may still be an oops).

A famous example of a zeugma from Star Trek: The Next Generation: “You are free to execute your laws, and your citizens, as you see fit.” In this sentence, the word “execute” applies to both laws and citizens, and as a result, has a shocking effect.

“On his fishing trip, he caught three trout and a cold.” (

“She looked at the object with suspicion and a magnifying glass.” (Charles Dickens)

When Zeugma Goes Wrong

“Sitting by the fence, the dog barked at the cat” is an example of when zeugma goes wrong. If you wrote that sentence, you may think that you are making it clear that both the dog and the cat are sitting by the fence. However, you have actually created a dangling modifier. Due to the placement of the word “sitting,” it is unclear as to whether the dog, the cat or both of the animals are sitting near the fence.

Another example of such a construction is as follows: “Walking by the tree, the child waved to her friend.” Again, who is walking by the tree? One child or both of the children?

Helen Woodall

Helen is available to line edit and/ or content edit fiction and non-fiction. Rates on application.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Bar Jokes for Grammar Geeks

·         A comma splice walks into a bar, it has a drink and then leaves.
·         A dangling modifier walks into a bar. After finishing a drink, the bartender asks it to leave.
·         A question mark walks into a bar?
·         Two quotation marks “walk into” a bar.
·         The bar was walked into by the passive voice.
·         Three intransitive verbs walk into a bar. They sit. They drink. They leave.
·         What would have happened had a subjunctive walked into a bar?
·         An antecedent walked into a bar, and they ordered a drink.
·         An ellipsis walked into a bar…
·         Bartender asks a woman what she wants. “An entendre,” she says. “Make it a double.” So he gives it to her.
·         An alliteration traipsed into a tavern, where it tangled tempestuously with an insistent, illiterate intern.
·         A typo wakled into a bar.
·         A rabbi, a priest, and a cliché walk into a bar.
·         Two possessive apostrophe's walk into the bar as if they owned the place.
·         A subject and a verb have a disagreement in a bar, and one of them pull out a pistol.
·         A heedless homonym walks into a bar. You think he wood of scene it write in front of him.
·         The Oxford Comma joined in a high-spirited debate at the bar that included his parents, Ayn Rand and the Bishop of Canterbury.

If you don't understand any of these jokes, please feel free to leave a comment or email me.

Helen Woodall

Helen is available to line edit and/ or content edit fiction and non-fiction. Rates on application.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Sentence length

Way back in the eighteenth century, or thereabouts, sentences were long because ladies sat in their drawing rooms, while Mama read out the latest book, sentence by sentence, for the young women to dissect, also sentence by sentence, comma by semicolon, while they all discussed all the descriptions therein. It was only after a page or three they would stop to work out the actual story behind the sentences. These days an editor would put a big fat red line (or possibly a track changed red comment) on the opening sentence of this blog and say “49 words. Too long. Cut into 3 short sentences for clarity”.

Readers today want their description in bite-sized chunks. They don’t want to stop and decide whether the punctuation required an extra comma or semicolon here or there, or if the curtains on the withdrawing room windows would have been prettier with an extra ruffle of French lace. They want to know if the villain catches the hero right now.

As a fiction author, your job is to keep the reader reading right to the very last line of the book. Only then do you want them wondering about window decorations or anything other than the characters and what is happening to them.

Of course you do need to vary the sentence structure somewhat. Every sentence starting with “The hero…” gets boring fast and will not keep the reader entertained. As for the curtains, show them flapping in the breeze, the French lace billowing (or whatever). Your reader will fill the gaps to their own satisfaction.

And yes, sentences can be too short. Fragmentary. Boring. Although fragments can add a lot of tension to a pivotal scene. But don’t do it too often.

Keep writing!

Helen Woodall

Helen is available to line edit and/ or content edit fiction and non-fiction. Rates on application.

Friday, October 12, 2012

And the best dialog tag is…

When you decide to write popular fiction, some of the things your High School English teacher carefully drummed into your mind have to be discarded. One of those things is always using different words for dialogue tags.

Now, when you write poetry, every word counts. Each syllable has to have rhythm and meaning. Therefore repeating a word is wasting an opportunity. The writer wants the reader to remember each word, to say the lines out loud and ponder them, getting every ounce of meaning from each word.

But with popular fiction, the writer’s aim is to keep the reader reading all the way to the end of the book. The last thing this author wants, is for the reader to jump up for a dictionary or thesaurus, decide to make a cup of coffee while she’s up, and never finish reading the book. If she doesn’t finish reading this book, she’s unlikely to buy any of your other books.

Therefore instead of saying “he exhorted”, a better thing to do is show him waving his arms and exhorting the crowd, and use the dialogue tag at the end, “he said”. That way you’ve enticed the reader with the drama of his actions, and not pulled her from the story with your dialogue tag.

Almost all of those fifty words your English teacher made you memorize to use instead of "said", can be demonstrated with actions. SHOWN to the reader instead of telling the reader. And therefore replaced with the best dialogue tag of all, the one readers never even notice. Said.

Helen Woodall

Helen is available to line edit and/ or content edit fiction and non-fiction. Rates on application.

Monday, October 8, 2012


Every book has a timeline. Even if the author never mentions what day of the week it is when an action takes place, the reader is mentally slotting that scene into a timeline before this happens, yet after that has happened.

Sooner or later the characters will eat a meal, go to work, sleep, or do something else time specific. That’s when your timeline must make sense. You’ve probably all read books or watched movies where the characters eat lunch twice in one day or the sun sets right after they’ve gone to work. For many readers, that’s enough to have them throwing the book at the wall.

If you don’t want to say, Monday May 6, that’s fine, but make sure the weather, the flowers and the sun fits your location for that time. Then keep a written timeline through the book so the right amount of time has passed before they go swimming at the beach, or cross country skiing in the mountains.
On your spreadsheet track their meals, the number of evenings that have passed and ensure that everything dovetails nicely.

That way you won’t have the kind of problems a certain movie has, where the characters stand on the beach and watch the sun set in the EAST.

Helen Woodall

Helen is available to line edit and/ or content edit fiction and non-fiction. Rates on application.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

So all you ever wanted was an advance? Beware.

All many authors want, is to be offered an advance. Even though many advances are actually less than an author receives from ebook royalties, there is still glamor surrounding the author who can brag she was given an advance.

Well now the seamier side of advances is being revealed. Not only do many authors have to wait years to get royalties above their advances, now a publisher is suing authors to get the advances back, even when their other books have earned way more than the advance given!

Dear authors, read and beware.

Helen Woodall

Helen is available to line edit and/ or content edit fiction and non-fiction. Rates on application.