Melodrama [Part 1 of 2]: 6 Ways to Spot It in Your Writing

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Happy first day of May!

In college, I took a course called “Writing Fiction & Poetry.” It was one of the first times I can remember actually exploring writing prompts and crafting short stories and then getting peer and professor feedback. The class was fun and challenging, and I learned a lot. I’ll never forget what my professor told me after reading one of my short stories titled “Broken.”

He called my story melodramatic.

Truthfully, until that point in my writing career, I had never given melodrama much thought–and I never imagined that anyone would say my writing was melodramatic. But every good writer worth his or her salt views constructive criticism as just that: constructive criticismSo I took a good look at my story and saw that yes, it was a bit melodramatic. After all, I had a character punching a mirror and then sliding to the floor in a puddle of tears. I guess I should have seen it coming.

Since then, I have tried to be more aware of when I am slipping from realistic action into melodrama, and as an editor I watch out for this in other’s writing as well.

Following are a few short tips for how to spot melodrama. Next week’s post will offer some tips for cutting melodrama. These tips are adapted from Jordan Rosenfeld’s book Make a Scene, which I mentioned in my post on good writing books to check out.

Feel free to leave any melodramatic tips or thoughts in the comments! (And yes, that sentence is phrased so it’s unclear whether I want you to leave tips on melodrama or tips that are themselves melodramatic.)

First, a definition of melodrama from my friend, Merriam-Webster dictionary:

Melodrama [noun]:
drama in which many exciting events happen
and the characters have very strong or exaggerated emotions
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The Traits of Melodrama

  • Sentimentality: Think of the kinds of sentiments written in romantic greeting cards. Think of cliché, trite, or corny dialogue. “‘You are my everything,’ he said passionately to her.” “My heart would stop beating if you weren’t by my side,” she said to him.
  • Hysterics: Think crying, screaming, arguing that gets too loud, too emotional, or too angry. Allowing hysterics to go on for too long is a good way to lose your readers.
  • Grand or unrealistic gestures: These are often found at the end of sappy romance movies, in which the changed man arranges for something utterly implausible, like hiring a famous football team to serenade his love. Big gestures may work for Hollywood, but they rarely fly in writing because they aren’t believable.
  • Affected speech: Be careful that your characters don’t sound like divas and English barons (unless they are), dropping phrases that real people wouldn’t likely utter. Often what seems melodramatic in a character is just a bad affectation or poorly crafted dialogue.
  • Kneejerk reactions: When a character changes his mind or behavior too suddenly, flip-flopping from meek to brave, from kind to villainous, the scene can read as melodrama.
  • Descriptor overload: On the technical level, remember that an overuse of adverbs or adjectives can often lead to a feeling of melodrama. Often just cutting them away will solve the problem.

Can you think of any other traits of melodrama that I missed?
Have you ever been told that your writing is too melodramatic?

Tips for Humor Writing (Part 2)

*Read Tips for Humor Writing (Part 1)

Writing funny can be difficult. What comes off funny in spoken word does not always translate to paper so easily. Following are a few tips for humor writing as a follow up to part 1.

***WORD CHOICE (and the K rule)***
As a humble writer of prose, your humor rests almost exclusively on the power of your words, which is why you must pick them with care and arrange them for maximum impact. William Zinsser, in his well-respected reference manual, On Writing Well, states that humor is the one type of writing where using a thesaurus is actually beneficial. Careful word selection allows you to assume many different voices or tones in your writing and use them to sneak up on your readers while carefully concealing your punch line until the last possible minute.

Some words just sound funnier. (I mentioned this in Part 1. Consider which is funnier—pull or yank?)

Also, words with the k sound (cadillac, quintuplet, sex) are perceived as the funniest; and words with a hard g (guacamole, gargantuan, Yugo) create almost as many grins. This may be because much of what makes Americans laugh today has roots in Yiddish humor, the language of which includes many guttural sounds—and the k and hard g are as close as English comes.

***THE RULE OF THREE***
Writing comedically usually requires establishing a pattern (with the setup) and then misdirecting the reader (with the punch line). For something to be funny, it has to first have a solid foundation; there needs to be something there for the humor to play against. One thing to note, however, is that it is important to anchor the humor in something familiar. Exaggeration is funny only to a point, but for it to be funny, it needs to be believable on some level.

One simple way of doing this is to pair two like ideas in a list and then add a third, incongruent, idea. Here’s an example of a sentence using the Rule of Three: Losing weight is simple: Eat less, exercise more, and pay NASA to let you live in an anti-gravity chamber.

This is one of the most flexible ways to naturally incorporate humor into your narrative. Take advantage of the element of surprise; after listing two everyday things, throw in something your readers won’t expect (like the quip about NASA).

***FUNNY ANECDOTES AND STORIES***
Most of the things we laugh at in real life are true stories, sometimes exaggerated for effect. In fact, experts say we laugh far more at these types of everyday happenings than at “jokes.” That’s because all humor is based in truth—things people think and ways they act. It makes sense, then, to use real things to help illustrate your points as you write. When Your Money or Your Life authors Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin wanted to demonstrate the importance of changing the way we think about money, they did so by telling the story of a young girl watching her mother prepare a ham to bake for dinner. As the mother cut both ends off the ham, the daughter asked why. Mom replied that her mother had always done it that way. When the daughter still insisted on knowing why, a quick call to grandma revealed the reason: “Because the pan was too small.”

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So what do you think? Do you find writing funny to be hard? Have you ever tried using a rule of three or a specific word choice to add humor to your writing?

How to Hyphenate Ages

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I saw a tweet about hyphenation earlier this week, and I thought this would make a good grammar tip, because I have to correct this almost every time I edit anything with ages.

This is going to be short and sweet. (Note: these are just grammatical examples. I do not actually have a seven-year-old.)

Correct: I have a seven-year-old.
Correct: I have a seven-year-old daughter.
Incorrect: I have a seven year old.

Correct: My daughter is seven years old.
Incorrect: My daughter is seven-years-old.

Here’s the difference: One example is using age as a noun (seven-year-old); one is using age as an adjective phrase (seven years old).

When using age as an adjective before a noun to modify it OR when using age itself as a noun, use hyphens.
When using age as an adjective phrase after a noun, do not use hyphens.

Here are more examples:

That lady looks like she’s eighty years old, but she’s only twenty! <–adjective phrase after a noun
That twenty-year-old looks like she’s eighty. <–noun
The twenty-year-old lady looks like she’s eighty. <– adjective before a noun

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I hope that helps! Feel free to leave any questions in the comments.

Tips for Writing Children’s Books: Animals as Main Characters

I don’t think I’ve written anything about children’s books on this blog yet, and I’d like to. At the publishing company I used to work for, I was actually the leader of a children’s book editing team at one point. This topic will not apply to many of you, but then again who knows? You might just learn something!

One of the things I did was take my team to the bookstore to browse the children’s section. When making edits on a children’s book, it’s a good idea to be able to give the author an example of an actual children’s book that has been successful while utilizing the technique the author is attempting. Each month we focused on a different aspect of children’s books: animals as main characters, repetition, setting, theme, teaching, just to name a few.

Following are copies of notes I wrote based on one of our monthly bookstore outings where we looked at using animals as main characters. These are all books you can find at the bookstore or library that provide a great example of an author who successfully used animals as his or her main characters.

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Olivia by Ian Falconer

Olivia is an excellent example of a beloved children’s book that tells the story of a character who is an animal, not a human. There’s nothing in the text itself that says one way or the other, but the illustrations of a pig are so much more engaging to a young reader. This also shows why minimal narration is key. You don’t have to list everything a character is wearing, for example, because that can be shown in the illustrations. The text is understated—nothing literal. Also, nothing actually happens in this story that’s extremely out of the ordinary, but it’s still interesting. Why? Because it’s a pig. That’s why the use of an animal or unique human (ie. pirate, ninja, alien) is so important.

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Corduroy by Don Freeman

Corduroy is a beloved book about an animal, and yet there’s little in the text to suggest that Corduroy actually is an animal. The illustrations do this. Even though the book ends in a suburban home, the main plot’s setting is extremely fun and unique—a mall. Every child dreams about their stuffed animals coming alive in their room, but this setting makes the story stand out. The fact that this book has become a classic illustrates the fact that books featuring animals and set in out-of-the-ordinary locations last through the ages.

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Sea Monster’s First Day by Kate Messner

A sea monster is a unique animal that you can have some fun with illustrations and storyline. This book is another example (like Olivia) of why minimal narration is key. The story centers around a sea monster who is nervous about his first day of school but learns how much fun school is. This is something every child can relate to, but the fact that the main character is a sea monster rather than a child makes it more interesting to read about. Plus, the book is set in the ocean, so even though a classroom setting may be familiar, it’s under water, which is a fun place to read about.

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Can you think of any other children’s books that do a good job using an animal as the main character?
Do you think using a well-known book from the bookstore can be a good learning tool for writers?

What’s the Difference? [I.e. vs E.g.]

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It has been brought to my attention by an astute blog reader that I have not posted yet in 2014. I do sincerely apologize for my absence. At the end of 2013 I started a new job as well as taking on more freelance editing projects. Add that to adjusting to the start of a new year, and I took an unexpected break from my writing and editing tips.

Moving forward, I am committing to one new post every Thursday, and you are certainly free to suggest any topics you would like to see covered, either writing or editing related. Today’s topic is one I have seen used incorrectly a lot recently, so hopefully this will help clarify.

First, a little explanation.

I.e. and E.g. are both abbreviations for Latin terms.
I.e. = id est | E.g. = exempli gratia

Of course, Latin is harder to remember than English, so here’s a handy trick to help:
I.e. = in essence | E.g. = example given

Here is how you would use each of these in a sentence:

I like vegetables, e.g., peppers, carrots, and broccoli
When you use e.g. like this, you’re basically saying: “I like vegetables, for example, peppers, carrots, and broccoli.”

Remember: E.g. = example given. You are giving examples within the sentence to further explain what you have already said. The reader (or listener) understands that peppers, carrots, and broccoli is not an exhaustive list of the vegetables you like but are merely a few examples.

Here is how you would use i.e. in a sentence:

I like vegetables, i.e., peppers, carrots, and broccoli.

What’s the difference? Well, e.g. was offering a few examples of many options. Using i.e. in this sentence shows that these are the only vegetables you like.

This might sound confusing, but it’s actually easy once you get the hang of it. All you really need to remember is that i.e. means “in essence” and e.g. means “example given.” The former is essentially repeating what you’ve already said in a different way; the latter is offering examples to further explain what is being said/written.

For further reading

Grammar Girl: I.e. Versus E.g.
-The difference between e.g. and i.e. from Grammar Monster

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Leave any questions in the comments!

On Setting the Mood

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I’m reading The Help right now. Well, okay actually I’m listening to the audio book. Yesterday there was a scene where a character was going over to another character’s house to talk. The scene was tense, awkward, and even a bit suspenseful because we weren’t sure what was going to happen during the conversation.

As I listened, I was struck by how the author used the description of the room the women were in to highlight the tense, suspenseful tone of the meeting. I don’t have the book in front of me to quote from, so I hope you will forgive me for a paraphrase. What I remember most was the description of the color of the walls, the lighting in the room itself, and the window shades.

The color was brown, and the room was dark. The window let in almost no light because the shades were drawn together and pinched together in the middle. The lamp cast a gloomy shadows on the walls.

All of this created an atmosphere of distrust and awkwardness, as previously stated. I found myself taking on those same feelings of discomfort. The tense tone of the scene would not have been nearly so effective if the room was bright, with pink walls and sunshine streaming in through the windows. My point here is that while there is something to be said for excessive description, there is also something so wonderful about using the surroundings to mirror the tone of the characters in that scene. You as the writer have a chance to be creative with how you use lighting and props to pull readers into a particular scene.

It’s important to remember that just because readers can’t physically see the scene like they can while watching a play or a movie, YOU have the power to make the scene come to life. The only thing you’re limited by is your own creativity.

Resources for Query Letters

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The publishing industry is a hard, hard place. Rejection is a daily occurrence for most aspiring authors, and it can be discouraging to pour your heart and soul into a manuscript, only to have it cast aside as if it’s nothing. One way to decrease your chances of rejection is to have an amazing query letter. (Note: if you’ve just asked yourself what a query letter is, you’re doing it wrong.)

So how DO you write an amazing query letter?

I am not an expert on query letters, nor am I an agent. But what I have to offer you today is a list of some of the best resources that I’ve found in my work research and personal experience. There are many, many more out there, but these will give you a good place to jump in. Leave a comment if you’ve run across a great query letter resource too!

I hope this helps, and I hope you achieve all your writing goals and hopes and dreams in 2014. Cheers!

Will Literary Agents Really Read Your Query Letter?
15 Resources for a Better Query Letter
Query Letter Template
This entire website

 

Grammar Tip: Capitalizing the Seasons

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I’ve talked about this before, but people like to capitalize everything. I do not understand this. If you capitalize every single word, then no words stand out! This defeats the purpose of capitalization in the first place. It should also be stated that I am equally as annoyed by people who refuse to capitalize anything. They try to act like not capitalizing “I” is cool.

It’s not cool.

But that’s a post for another day. Today’s grammar tip is an oldie but a goodie, as they say. You can find this rule in Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) 8.87.

Seasons of the year are lowercasedspring. summer. fall. winter.

Lowercased. Every time. Unless, of course, it’s in a title or something. Make your editor friends proud, be smarter than everyone else, and don’t capitalize the seasons.

May vs. Might

A few weeks ago, my friend Laurie asked me to write a post on may vs. might. So, Laurie, this one’s for you!

I’ll start things off with an example: I might order Chinese later? OR I may order Chinese later?

The difference is subtle, and at first you’re probably wondering what the point of this post is anyway, because what’s the difference? As I’ve been trying to show you, however, one word can make all the difference. Both may and might suggest something that could or could not happen, so in that sense they’re the same. The difference comes in when you consider the degree of certainty.

I think of might a bit more sarcastically. As in: Yeah, I might go on a date with him if he ever got his act together. What’s implied here is: Yeah, I might do that, but… the possibility is slim.

You would use may if the possibility is leaning toward the side of probably. An example would be if you were considering what you’re going to do that day: I may call Sally later and invite her to a movie. May in this case meaning: “it’s definitely on my list of possibilities.”

Grammar Girl has written an excellent article on this exact subject if you would like further reading. She notes two exceptions to the above “rule.”

1) Might is past tense of May

Example: Bob might have asked her out last night = We’re not sure if he did or didn’t, but it happened in the past tense.
NOT: Bob may have asked her out last night.

2) Clarity

The second exception to the may/might rule discussed above is for instances of clarity.
Example: Bob may ask her out.

This could either mean that Bob will probably ask her out OR it could mean that Bob has permission to ask her out. If it’s the former, might should be used to avoid confusion.

The same goes for may not.
Example: Bob may not ask her out.

So does Bob not have permission, or is he just not going to? We’re not sure, so to avoid confusion, you would want to say: Bob might not ask her out.

I hope that helps! Again, I definitely recommend Grammar Girl’s may/might article for further reading.

*P.S. There will not be a Friday writing post this week. Happy Thanksgiving!