Way back in March we discussed reasons stories were rejected by Wyngraf. The number one cause of rejections was what we call “nuts & bolts”—the essential mechanics of prose writing and storytelling.
Nuts & bolts rejections walk a fine line. We took some pieces that required essentially zero editing, but we also took some that needed work. If a story is strong everywhere else, a few errors won’t disqualify it.
However, persistent mechanical problems of the sort that would require a lengthy editing process almost certainly will earn a rejection. This gets truer the longer the story is—it’s simply easier to edit 3,000 words than 8,000.
With that in mind, let’s look at the nuts & bolts issues we encountered during our first submission window. This series will cover four categories: prose mechanics, prose style, pacing, and worldbuilding.
We’ll start with mechanics.
Common Prose Mechanics Issues
Headhopping occurs when a story suddenly switches from one character’s point of view to another. Sometimes it’s obvious:
Justinia contemplated the goblin. It certainly wasn’t what you’d call beautiful, but with a little time and a lot of soap, she thought she could clean the little creature up. She’d just have to borrow Berd’s copper bathtub.
This tall human sure seemed obsessed with him, Gort thought.
We jumped from Justinia’s POV to Gort’s without any warning! At best it’s disorienting, making the reader pause and figure out whose head they’re in now. At worst, it stops readers from engaging and identifying with your main character, since we don’t consistently see the world from their perspective.
POV shifts can be subtle, too.
Justinia slapped Berd on the shoulder. He was a good man. “Thanks for the loan! I’ll have the tub back to you in one piece, promise.”
As the lovely young woman walked off toward the inn, Berd blushed.
Did you catch it? We started in Justinia’s POV and heard her thoughts on Berd. But in the next paragraph, not only do we get a subtle hint of Berd’s thoughts—presumably Justinia wouldn’t think of herself as a “lovely young woman”—we learn something that Justinia can’t know. With her back turned, she wouldn’t see Berd blush!
Paragraphing is the art of combining your sentences into coherent chunks. (You know—paragraphs.) It’s very much a stylistic choice, and there are no hard-and-fast rules here. Modern writers often use short, punchy paragraphs, whereas older authors tended to go much longer before breaking.
But we did see a few submissions with paragraphs so long they became distracting.
One of the few true paragraphing rules is that you should start a new paragraph any time a new character speaks. Otherwise, readers get confused over which line of dialogue goes with whom. (And yes, even this rule gets broken sometimes, mostly in older stories.)
The other issue we saw was paragraphs containing too much story. As long as all the contents of a paragraph cover the same topic—describing a character, showing one action or a related sequence of actions, that sort of thing—they can go on as long as you need them to. It becomes a problem when the story shows multiple actions, moves from character to character, or even changes scenes without a paragraph break!
Long walls of text are hard for readers. It’s easy to get lost, especially if the paragraph breaks you do include don’t seem to match up with changes in the story.
This wasn’t a common problem, but it did come up. Older fiction writers, especially in the nineteenth century, loved stringing clause after clause together into massive sentences dripping with commas and semicolons. It can work, but it’s tough to pull off. Often those clauses just pile up like cars in a highway wreck.
Don’t ask your sentences to do too much work! Break at each new idea.
On the other side of the length issue, we have sentences so short they aren’t even sentences anymore. To qualify as a sentence, we need at least a subject (the person doing something) and a verb (the thing they’re doing). Anything less is just a fragment.
This one’s tricky, because using sentence fragments is a common—and totally valid—stylistic choice. They’re short and punchy. Just be sure you’re using them on purpose. For example:
Justinia eyed the orc. He was tall. Too tall. And big, too. Those shoulders!
Everything after the second sentence is a fragment (notice how the verbs are missing?) but they’re all just fine. Fragments are only a problem when they’re broken up in a way that doesn’t make sense:
Gort grabbed his knife. Clenched his teeth and jumped.
Gort does three things, so why are two of them split off into their own fragment? There are a couple quick fixes available here.
Gort grabbed his knife, clenched his teeth, and jumped.
Gort grabbed his knife. Clenched his teeth. And jumped.
The first one is just a simple list. Not fancy, perhaps, but it won’t throw the reader off. The second option is more stylized—a lot more stylized, and a little melodramatic for our tastes—but we wouldn’t call it an error.
Trouble with dialogue tags—”he said,” “she shouted,” that sort of thing—was probably the single most common mechanical issue in submissions we received. Dialogue tags follow a number of rules.
Speaking tags are ones that describe the character actually speaking, like “said,” “shouted,” “yelled,” and so on. When dialogue leads into a speaking tag, use a comma, not a period.
Yes: “I love you,” she said.
No: “I know.” he replied.
Note that other punctuation is generally fine—things like exclamation points and question marks. Just don’t use periods!
Action tags break up dialogue with little snippets of character behavior. When dialogue leads into an action tag, do use a period.
Yes: “I want you to have this.” Delia offered him the locket.
No: “It’s beautiful,” Berd took the locket gently from her hand.
Again, other punctuation is fine.
Here’s another, more complex action tag example. This time we’re splitting up a long line of dialogue with action.
No: “I’ll get you, you devil,” Godric dashed across the room, brandishing his sword, “and all your wicked friends!”
Yes: “I’ll get you, you devil!” Godric dashed across the room, brandishing his sword. “And all your wicked friends!”
Note how we had to change the comma at the end of the first line of dialogue, change the comma at the end of the action, and capitalize the first word of the new line of dialogue!
Incorrect Speaking Tags
The last dialogue tag issue is more stylistic than mechanical, but we’ll mention it here anyway: don’t use things that don’t involve speaking as speaking tags.
No: “I’ll eat that little soul of yours,” the demon grinned.
Yes: “You’re welcome to try.” Godric smiled.
You can’t grin words (and we don’t recommend trying!). In our Yes example, Godric smiles after delivering his dialogue. In other words, it’s an action tag, not a speaking tag.
Now, some writers and teachers say you should never use any speaking tag other than “said.” They find whispering, shouting, calling and so on distracting, and suggest the dialogue itself should make clear how it’s being delivered.
There’s truth in this, but as with most writing rules, it’s best used in moderation. If every dialogue tag is fancy, it gets pretty weird pretty fast. But we at Wyngraf don’t object to a little shouting, whispering, murmuring, and hollering now and then.
Like dialogue tags, simultaneous action is an issue that’s both common and controversial. It refers to using gerunds (“-ing” verbs) to describe a character doing multiple things at once. For example:
Gort sat in the bath, scrubbing his scales and whistling a jaunty tune.
So far so good. The trouble arises when you treat things as simultaneous that aren’t.
Cador stood, brushing the dirt from his trousers.
Berd bit into the apple, chewing and swallowing with gusto.
Justinia ran into the throne room, punching the guards as they approached and leaping onto the dais.
In each example, it’s hard to imagine the character doing all those things at once.
Have you ever tried standing up while brushing off your pants? It’s a good way to fall on your butt. Better to just say “Cador stood and brushed the dirt from his trousers.” It may seem simplistic, but this version of the sentence is active, direct, and captures the order in which things happened. (Remember, “and” shows things happening one after the next!)
Similarly with our other examples: Berd can’t bite, chew, and swallow all at once. Justinia can’t punch a bunch of guards and leap onto the dais while she’s still entering the room. Both of these are much worse than the first example, which probably wouldn’t even register with many readers.
A final note: not every editor is bothered by simultaneous action, and like everything in writing, it can be used occasionally for stylistic effect even if it “breaks the rules.” The trick is knowing when and how to use it, and—we can’t emphasize this enough—not overdoing it.
That’s a lot of rules. Some are more flexible than others, but in writing, every rule can be broken if you have a good reason. With that said, you can’t justify breaking a rule unless you truly understand it first. And even then, exceptions are best used sparingly. Overusing any of these mechanical issues, even on purpose, will earn a rejection.
Next time: the most common style issues we encountered in the slush pile!