Author, Editor, Publisher, Coach

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The Publishing Industry – A Tough Nut to Crack

THIS POST IS FOR WRITERS:

Prepare Well, and Elevate Your Prose

(This article originally appeared at another site back in March of 2011, from which it is now gone. Therefore, I re-post it here. NOTE: I may come back later [today is 25 September 2020] to update it, including how it applies to our standards at Evolved Publishing.)

I aim this post at aspiring authors who seek to publish, for the first time, via a traditional publisher.

I love to read fiction, and one of my greatest joys is the discovery of wonderful new authors. Yet they are not as plentiful as one might expect. If you’ve been trying to publish your first novel (and I don’t mean self-publish—anyone with a credit card can do that), you know precisely what I mean.

1) The traditional publishing industry is a notoriously difficult nut to crack.

2) Most agents require a referral, or preliminary contact at a writer’s conference, before they’ll take a hard look at a first-time author of fiction. Some agents express indignation at that statement but…come on…really? Who knew that just finding an agent who’ll read the manuscript would be such a daunting task—such a crazy concept? I didn’t…until I started the process. Yikes! Yet as broken as the industry is in this regard, first-time authors bear some of the blame—a great big chunk of it, in fact.

3) Most first-time authors are simply not ready for publication. Their work needs some…er…um…work. Most submissions that agents receive from first-timers are substandard. Agents, who are only human (Oh yes they are!), develop an auto-response psychologically: “Oh no! This submission is from a first-timer! Aaaaahhhhhh………” They must fight this tendency every day, I think. Some succeed—sometimes—and some don’t. The walls they erect against first-time authors of fiction are formidable, which makes our task of cracking that nut an insanely difficult one. Is anyone else losing his hair? Yeesh!

You must be a good storyteller, of course, but you must be more than that. You must be a WRITER. In other words, WHAT you write is important, but HOW WELL you write it is equally so.

4) Agents are unforgiving when it comes to the work of first-time authors. You can get away with much less than do established authors. Let’s face it: some poor writing makes it into print—but rarely from first-time authors of fiction. Do you think that’s unfair? You’d best get over it, and do what you must to break through those barriers. If you can’t accept that, please go back to your day job—save your sanity.

5) You must grab the agent on the very first page of the manuscript, preferably the first paragraph. In fact, why wait that long? Hook them with the FIRST SENTENCE! Front-load your piece; otherwise, they’ll never see all the brilliance that awaits them deeper into your manuscript. As a first-timer, and assuming you don’t have an “in” with the agent (referral, personal history, etc.), you have no reputation or track record to serve you. Therefore, grab them by the throat, right out of the chute, and don’t let go.

6) No spelling errors! No grammatical errors! Period! Do you want to be a professional? Outstanding! Then write professional prose. Oh sure, there are those moments when, for purely stylistic purposes, you violate the rules of grammar. Fine, but remember: you’re a first-time author. Agents will accept only so many of those “stylistic choices” before they determine that you simply don’t know how to write properly. Besides, if you minimize those stylistic flourishes, they’ll pack a much stronger punch (assuming you’ve executed them well); if you overload them, you’ll water them down, sap them of their effectiveness. Don’t be too cute by half, for the likely result may be the all too familiar: The agent stops reading your manuscript, perhaps with a frustrated sigh, and reaches for one of those wonderful little slips that start, “Thank you for allowing us to review your manuscript. Unfortunately…”

Good writing, even merely adequate writing, is an acquired skill. It requires rather a lot of work. Darn it! Yes, you must have some innate talent, but you must develop your natural skills to reach your full potential. You must work at it.

7) Read, read, and then read some more—fiction. If you write romance novels, for example, then read A LOT of romance novels. Know your genre. Know what passes as “publishable” material, but always keep in mind that the standards are higher for first-time authors.

8) Read, read, and then read some more—nonfiction. If you were going to be an electrician, you’d read books about electronics. If you were going to be an astronomer, you’d read books about astronomy. Need I say it? Well, all right: Read books about writing! There are some great ones out there. If you’re a first-timer, focus initially on those earmarked for beginners, and make sure that The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White (Macmillan), is part of your arsenal.

9) Finally, if you’re serious about publishing your work, find an editor. Every beginning writer (and most established ones) needs an editor. We’re too close to our own work. We often make mistakes that belie our skill level, meaning we know better, but we may read right over those mistakes when self-editing. A writer’s mind puts up psychological barriers, as if it assumes that, if she wrote it in the first place, it must be right. Why else would she have written it? It’s rather as the old saw says: “Forest? What forest? I don’t see no stinkin’ forest. All those darned trees are in the way!”

When it comes to your fiction, think of your prose as the trees and your STORY as the forest. If an agent can’t see through the trees to find the forest, your STORY will wallow in perpetual anonymity.

‘Til next time, remember this: Writing well is not easy. It takes work. You mustn’t be lazy.

Narration: Who should tell your story?

THIS POST IS FOR WRITERS:

Narrative: 1st-Person vs. 3rd-Person

(This article originally appeared at another site back in March of 2011, from which it is now gone. Therefore, I re-post it here.)

It’s time, you tell yourself, to finally sit down and write that novel or short story that’s been burning a swath through your consciousness. Outstanding! Now you must answer the first critical question: Who’s going to tell your story?

In other words, which narrative voice will you employ? You have options, but for our purposes, since a second-person narrative is so rare (and difficult to pull off), I’ll focus on the two primary options.

     1) First-Person Narrator

          a. This would be a character from your story, typically the protagonist.

          b. You could have multiple first-person narrators, each telling their own parts of the story.

     2) Third-Person Narrator

          a. The most common form is the omniscient narrator—the God-like being that sees, hears and knows everything.

          b. It could be a secondary, minor character, a witness to the critical story elements.

          c. It could be a separate “interested party,” such as a news reporter.

Important Consideration

The truth is that most agents and editors (publishers) dislike a first-person narrative. Why is that the case? The simplest answer is this: Few writers pull it off well. Authors have so worn down agents and editors with poor first-person submissions, many of those agents and editors have erected an automatic mental barrier to them. Some are reluctant even to consider it seriously, let alone review the manuscript.

Don’t think badly of them. Under such a barrage of poor work, their reaction is perfectly natural. They’re only human, after all. (Oh yes they are!)

I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t use a first-person narrative, merely that you have some hard work ahead of you.

We must overcome several challenges to create an effective first-person narrative. As the first-person narrator, we authors become the primary character; we personalize the narrative. That means we see everything through our eyes alone, which leads us into a few traps.

     1) We don’t remain consistent with the character-narrator’s voice, in both the main narrative and that character’s dialogue. She must have one voice, whether narrating the story, speaking to another character, or musing in silent monologue.

     2) We create a character-narrator with such quirks or limitations that they are no longer credible—believable—as narrator. If that happens, you’ve lost the reader.

     3) We offer insights into what other characters are thinking or feeling, even though the narrator, as one of the characters, can’t possibly know what’s in the minds of those other characters. When we insist on a first-person narrative, we trap ourselves into a single Point-of-View (POV), and we must adhere to it.

          a. You can get around this by having multiple first-person narrators, each telling their own part of the story. However, this is highly inadvisable in a short story, and in a novel, you must always break chapters when you change narrators. Furthermore:

                i. It would be advisable to include in your chapter headings the name of the narrator for that chapter, in order to prevent reader confusion.

                ii. You must establish a unique narrative voice, a distinctive style, for every one of your first-person narrators (no simple task), and that distinctiveness must shine through consistently in both their narrative and their dialogue.

     4) We tend to relay information, rather than bring the reader into the story. In other words, it becomes all TELLING and no SHOWING.

          a. I saw this, I heard that, I remember when this happened, I wish I had done that, etc. I, I, I, I, I….

          b. Every narrative struggles with SHOW versus TELL, but the problem is particularly acute in a first-person narrative, where the lines are grayer than the more black-and-white lines of a third-person omniscient narrative.

     5) There is a natural tendency to bring even a Past Tense story current, to jump into Present Tense, in order to indicate how the character-narrator now feels about what happened. This often smacks of Author Intrusion, and it happens much more frequently in a first-person narrative. After all, the author is the character is the narrator; it’s hard to draw distinct lines of separation.

          a. I’ll never forget those words.

          b. I wish I could have seen it coming.

          c. I remember that day as if it were yesterday.

          d. Looking back, I now understand how it all went wrong.

It’s not that you may never use such devices, but you must not do so within the Past Tense narrative. You may start a chapter or section with that sort of reminiscence, but only if the following are true:

     1) You use a story break (***) to separate it (the Present Tense Lead) from the main Past Tense narrative.

     2) Within the Lead itself, you must break paragraphs when you jump between Tenses.

     3) After the story break, when you’re back in the main narrative, as it were, keep it in the Past Tense.

     4) Only use this Lead mechanism if the character-narrator’s emotional and psychological states, as seen through her mind, is:

          a. Critical to the story, and;

          b. Something you visit throughout the story with some consistency.

          c. Be honest with yourself. If neither of these two is true, resist the temptation to utilize such Leads, and just stick with the main Past Tense narrative.

Ultimately, we should base our choice of first-person narrative on only one criterion: It cements a deep emotional bond between the reader and the character-narrator (usually the protagonist) that you might not otherwise achieve. That’s it—the only justification for a first-person narrative, in my opinion. If it fails to deliver on this, or if it detracts too greatly from the other characters, some of whom may be as critical as the character-narrator, we should revert to a third-person omniscient narrative, which offers certain advantages.

     1) It enables us to delve into every character’s mind, rather than just the character-narrator’s mind, to explore all of their emotional and psychological states.

     2) It brings the line between SHOWING and TELLING more into focus.

     3) It provides us greater flexibility in moving from one character POV to another.

     4) We’ll be less tempted to jump into Present Tense during an otherwise Past Tense narrative, and less inclined to engage in Author Intrusion.

In closing, let me say that a first-person narrative can be a powerful tool. It might make your work more provocative and thrilling, as you delve deep into the mind of the character-narrator at the heart of your story. However, you must recognize and meet the challenges that such a choice will provide. It will be more difficult to execute effectively than would a third-person omniscient narrative, but the payoff just might be worth that extra effort. If you don’t want to tackle those challenges head-on, stay away from the first-person narrative.

‘Til next time, remember this: To write well, you must work hard. To succeed in this tough gig, you mustn’t be lazy.

Just Wondering….

THIS POST IS FOR WRITERS and READERS:

Are books becoming mere “Movies on Paper?” Does eloquent writing even matter anymore?

(This article originally appeared at another site back in March of 2011, from which it is now gone. Therefore, I re-post it here.)

I’ve been reading quite a bit lately—at least, “quite a bit” for me. I’ve read six thrillers in the past month, and one common thread has really jumped out at me. The authors of four of the six wrote them in what I could best call a “sparse style.” Were I feeling a bit snarky, I might call them “just plain sloppy.” The other two might at least challenge the average 12-year-old. (Remember: We’re talking about content otherwise meant for an adult audience.)

This raises a number of questions for me:

1) Is this really what the publishing industry wants? If so, is it because that’s what readers want?

2) Is this unique to the Thriller genre, or are other genres displaying the same lack of concern for quality prose?

3) Why do people read? If they seek nothing more than a “Movie on Paper,” why wouldn’t they just watch the movie? It’s a lot quicker… and cheaper.

4) Have our schools dumbed us down so much that no one even knows how to write anymore, or, for that matter, how to read? Does that mean we should throw up our hands and surrender? Give up on the language?

5) Whatever happened to editors? Are these successful authors now so comfortable with their positions that they no longer feel it necessary to “do it right”—which is to say, “write?” Is anyone else insulted by that, feeling a bit abused, or is it just me?

6) Why should I continue to spend my hard-earned money on books, if all I’m going to get is a different format for a movie I can watch… free of charge… in less than two hours?

Okay, so maybe I’m ranting a bit. Okay, so I’m ranting a lot. What can I say? When I read a book in which every other sentence is a 3- or 4-word, verb-free, content-free fragment, I can’t help but feel as if I have the hiccups. And between you and me, I HATE the hiccups. NOTE: I say this not as a writer or editor, but as a reader.

I look for more from a book:

A) Characters that live and breathe on the page, full of emotional and psychological depth that a movie hasn’t the time to offer;

B) Complex plot that goes beyond the movie-like car chases, explosions and eye candy;

C) And yes, a thoughtful exploration of the language, one that brings richness and wonder that no movie can match.

It’s not that I mind an occasional simple, quick, not terribly fulfilling read—a minor distraction from the stresses of everyday life. I just don’t want every book to be that way. Nowadays, it seems I must return to the classics for a literary excursion. Modern storytellers are decent enough… well, storytellers. However, I’m hard-pressed to call some of them—quite a few of them, in fact—writers.

Our language is a wonderful tool, a fantastic opportunity for the exploration of whole new worlds born of imagination and daring. Yes, I love a good story… of course! However, let me revel in the words, at least every once in a while, to make that exploration a richer and more satisfying one.

Is metaphor dead? Is simile obsolete? Are breathless, grunting sentence fragments all that remain of our devolved language?

God, I hope not.

Of the six authors I recently read, each of whom I’ve read before, I’m scratching three from my future reading list. I’ll not buy any more of their books. Ever. Perpetual hiccups are no fun, and I just can’t stand it anymore. As to the other three, I’m placing them on probation—one more chance, maybe two—only because I’m so attached to their characters.

I offer here an example of how to do it right:

Dean Koontz, in his book Forever Odd, could have simply TOLD us that protagonist Odd Thomas was lonely, and that he had only himself to blame for that fact. This would have been fine, if rather dull. Instead, he chose to SHOW us Odd’s state through metaphor:

“Loneliness comes in two basic varieties. When it results from a desire for solitude, loneliness is a door we close against the world. When the world instead rejects us, loneliness is an open door, unused.”

As I read those words, I could see Odd in my mind’s eye, standing at his open door, wondering why no one ever stopped by to visit. Dean Koontz took the time and effort, as he does in snippets throughout all his books, to raise the bar, to challenge and excite us with words—to write for us. Thank you, Mr. Koontz! Whatever you may think of his stories, at least he writes!

A note to modern writers, on the off chance that you care: “My patience is running thin. Write for me! Or I’ll just wait for the movie.”

‘Til next time, remember this: Writing well is not easy. It takes work. You mustn’t be lazy.

Passive Voice: A Writing Sin – Part 3

THIS POST IS FOR WRITERS:

“Placing the Cart before the Horse”

(Note: If you haven’t read my articles, Passive Voice: A Writing Sin – Part 1 and Passive Voice: A Writing Sin – Part 2, I recommend you do so before continuing with this one.)

I want to clarify what I mean when I say that you must “Place the horse before the cart.”

A writer often creates Passive Voice sentences because his thought processes are out of order. He thinks first of the object, then the act, and finally the subject. Thus, his thought process works something like this:

1) There was this thing, and;

2) Something happened to this thing, and;

3) What happened to the thing was done by this character (if any).

Notice how, in that line of passive thinking, it’s all about the thing. As a result, the writer will likely create a Passive Voice sentence, because the thing is the object of the sentence—the cart—yet he’s thinking about it as the subject.

The writer must correct—re-order—his thought processes to work like this:

4) There was this character, and;

5) This character did something, and;

6) In fact, this character did it to/for/with someone or something.

Notice how, in this new line of active thinking, it’s all about the character. As a result, the writer will likely create an Active Voice sentence, because he has made the character the subject of the sentence—the horse—now in its rightful place.

Thus, the keys are:

A) Subject = Horse

B) Object = Cart

C) The Subject commits the Act.

D) The Act affects the Object.

E) Place the horse before the cart.

F) This is right: “The horse pulls the cart.”

G) This is wrong: “The cart is pulled by the horse.”

Now, like all “rules” of writing, this is not a 100%-er. If you wish to provide special emphasis to a particular segment of the sentence, you might place that segment at the end of the sentence—where the reader best feels the emphasis. However, when you do that, ask yourself the critical questions: Does that closing really punch? Will the reader really feel that? Or did I just create a sloppy sentence for no good reason?

I will now illustrate further through a series of specific examples I’ve seen in pieces I’ve edited. As always, I shall keep confidential the authors’ names and story titles, to protect the not-so-innocent. [Insert chuckle here.]

BAD: Midsummer’s earthy colors of the landscape were dominated by dots of green.

(Note: These “reversed order” Passive Voice sentences typically run long. Another benefit of Active Voice sentences: they run shorter. In this example, I cut the 12-word original by 25%, down to 9 words.)

GOOD: Dots of green dominated the landscape’s midsummer earthy colors.

BAD: Adjustment was expedited when the captain called for a meeting with the ninety-two passengers on the second day out.

(Note: The author started the sentence with the object.)

GOOD: The captain expedited adjustment when he called for a meeting with the ninety-two passengers on the second day out.

BAD: The wound had been made, and now the men could not be placated by my yielding.

GOOD: I’d already inflicted the wound, and I would not placate the men now by yielding.

BAD: Outside, the soft rattle of pebbles dragged back down the beach was pierced by the aching cries of the gulls that arced and skimmed above the foam.

(Note: This is a difficult sentence on a number of levels. Read it aloud. You might decide, as I did, that the reader would appreciate a chance to catch his breath. Work it through in a couple of steps if necessary. First [GOOD], kill the Passive Voice. Then [BETTER], aim for the best possible structure.)

GOOD: Outside, the aching cries of gulls, which arced and skimmed above the foam, pierced the soft rattle of pebbles dragged back down the beach by the tide.

BETTER: Outside, gulls arced and skimmed above the foam, and their aching cries pierced the soft rattle of pebbles dragged back down the beach by the tide.

BAD: Our band was chosen for the gathering by the other band’s elders.

GOOD: The other band’s elders chose our band for the gathering.

In closing, please indulge me as I remind you once more to make these your watchwords: Keep it strong and direct!

‘Til next time, remember this: Writing well is not easy. It takes work. You mustn’t be lazy.

Passive Voice: A Writing Sin – Part 2

THIS POST IS FOR WRITERS:

“An Act without an Actor”

(Note: If you haven’t read my article, Passive Voice: A Writing Sin – Part 1, I recommend you do so before continuing with this one.)

Writers often create sentences in which something happens, but it happens out of thin air—no character actually does it. An act occurs, but no actor commits the act.

Example: “A stone skipped across the pond.”

Presto! It must be magic! Nah, it’s just poor writing—usually. On rare occasions—very rare—you may want to show action without revealing the actor, as a tool for building temporary suspense.

Example: “The door suddenly slammed behind him!”

However, the vast majority of this type of Passive Voice sentence occurs not to build suspense, but because the writer fails to commit to that which matters most—his characters’ actions. As I said in my previous hub, readers invest themselves in your characters and in their actions, not in actions that happen as if out of thin air. Without a character to invest in, readers lose interest (exception: Setting descriptions).

Will readers put down your story because you gave them one poor sentence? Of course not. However, if you dump too many meaningless acts into your piece—meaning things keep happening, but nobody does anything—they’ll bail out on you.

Readers rarely care for this: “A stone skipped across the pond.” They want to know who’s doing the skipping: “Susie skipped a stone across the pond.”

Readers care about people—your characters—and they care about actions only to the extent that characters commit them, or to the extent that those acts affect the characters.

I will now illustrate further through a series of specific examples I’ve seen in pieces I’ve edited. As always, I shall keep confidential the authors’ names and story titles, to protect the not-so-innocent. [Insert chuckle here.]

BAD: The words were not spoken so much as a command as a gentle prodding, an understanding and empathy that gave Bill strength.

(Note: We see here no actor, just an act. If you’ve mentioned the character’s name in a previous sentence, and you haven’t changed subjects, use a simple pronoun—he, she, etc.—to clarify the action. Otherwise, provide the acting character’s name.)

GOOD: Bill did not speak the words as a command so much as a gentle prod, with understanding and empathy that gave John strength.

BETTER: Bill offered the words not as a command, but as a gentle prod, with understanding and empathy to give John strength.

BAD:The wound had been made, and now the men could not be placated by my yielding. Without John willing to throw himself into the fray, I would surely be struck down by their numbers. As detestable as it seemed, my only recourse was undeniable: I would have to break through their lines and flee.

(Note: First, we have the act without an actor. Second, we have subject/sbject reversals.)

GOOD: I’d already inflicted the wound, and I would not placate the men now by yielding. If John didn’t throw himself into the fray, I would surely fall to their numbers. My only recourse, though detestable, was undeniable: break through their lines and flee.

BETTER: I’d already inflicted the wound, and I would not placate the men now by yielding. I needed John to throw himself into the fray, or I would surely fall to such a large group of soldiers. Although I detested my only recourse, I had no choice: I must break through their lines and flee.

(Note: Why is this better? Well, this is a first-person narrative, and we are now strongly in the narrator-character’s POV—his emotional state—with this BETTER alternative.)

BAD: The petition was met with indignant silence.

(Note: As readers, we can only assume that someone did the meeting. Please be specific and direct.)

GOOD: The captain responded to the petition with indignant silence.

BAD: A second, more urgent message bypassed the captain’s ranking officers to appear on his main screen.

(Note: Three cheers for that very talented message! [Insert chuckle here.] The inert object, “urgent message,” cannot act on its own. We need a subject here.)

GOOD: The passengers bypassed the captain’s ranking officers and sent a second, more urgent message directly to his main screen.

BAD: The lodge was kept ready for ceremonies, advisers and visitors when the gatherings came to their camp.

(Note: Who did the keeping?)

GOOD: The Counsel Elders kept the lodge for ceremonies, advisors, and visitors when the gatherings came to their camp.

BETTER: The Counsel Elders kept the lodge for ceremonies, advisors, and visitors.

In closing, let me remind you—because I just can’t seem to say it enough—to make these your watchwords: Keep it strong and direct!

‘Til next time, remember this: Writing well is not easy. It takes work. You mustn’t be lazy.

Passive Voice: A Writing Sin – Part 1

THIS POST IS FOR WRITERS:

How To Kill Strong Narrative

As a reader, I hate Passive Voice as much as any other writing sin—and more than most. As an editor, I darn near pop an aneurysm when I see it.

1) Readers view Passive Voice as weak and indecisive, as if the author lacks confidence.

…a) When readers see that, they too lose confidence—and interest.

…b) The effect is subtle; for many readers, it occurs at a subconscious level. They may not know why they don’t like it, but they’ll dislike it, all the same.

2) Readers invest themselves in the characters’ actions, not in actions that happen as if out of thin air.

…a) I refer to this nasty Passive Voice practice as “An Act without an Actor.” See my hub entry, Passive Voice: A Writing Sin – Part 2, for more on this.

…b) Without a character to invest in, readers lose interest.

…c) The only real exception to this is description of Setting.

3) Writers tend to scratch the subject of the larger paragraph/segment from that sentence, or at least relegate them to secondary status, and convert the object to the subject.

…a) Readers rarely care for this: A rock skipped across the pond.”

…b) They won’t like this: The rock was skipped across the pond by Danny.”

…c) However, they might like this: “Danny skipped a rock across the pond.”

…d) Writers who engage in this nasty Passive Voice practice what I call “Placing the Cart before the Horse.” See my hub entry, Passive Voice: A Writing Sin – Part 3, for more on this.

4) Passive Voice often results from the author’s attempt not to commit, not to offend, not to stand firm. His fear and anxiety often lead him down a meandering, excruciating, wordy route to the end of the sentence.

As Stephen King says in his book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (Scribner):

Two pages of the passive voice—just about any legal document ever written, in other words, not to mention reams of bad fiction—make me want to scream. It’s weak, it’s circuitous, and it’s frequently tortuous, as well. How about this: My first kiss will always be recalled by me as how my romance with Shayna was begun. Oh, man—who farted, right? A simpler way to express this idea—sweeter and more forceful, as well—might be this: My romance with Shayna began with our first kiss. I’ll never forget it. I’m not in love with this because it uses with twice in four words, but at least we’re out of that awful passive voice.

Since Mr. King hates “with” twice in four words, how about this as another alternative: My romance with Shayna began when we first kissed. What a moment!

I will now illustrate further through a series of specific examples I’ve seen in pieces I’ve edited. As always, I shall keep confidential the authors’ names and story titles, to protect the not-so-innocent. (Insert chuckle here.)

BAD: Susan and the old man had chipped enough flint to make more tools than would ever be used.

GOOD: Jeremy and the old man had chipped enough flint to make more tools than they would ever use.

BAD: Jimmy was comforted by the three small pups Mike had left behind, but he still felt empty.

GOOD: The three small pups Mike had left behind comforted Jimmy, but he still felt empty.

BAD: Mary shuffled on the rug until she was squarely facing her son.

(Note: Writers commonly use conjugations such as was doing anything” in a Past Tense narrative, but it rarely satisfies. If you suffer this bad habit, break it!)

GOOD: Mary shuffled on the rug until she squarely faced her son.

BETTER: Mary shuffled on the rug, spun on her heels and faced her son. She stood close enough to feel his breath on her nose.

BAD: Time is surely a measurement that could not have been marked in a cold and motionless void.

(Note: The author also mixed verb tenses here, using “is” in a Past Tense narrative.)

GOOD: Time was surely without measurement in that cold and motionless void.

BETTER: Time held neither measure nor meaning in that cold and motionless void.

BAD: Speed, time, and distance are so closely related that one can’t be considered without involving the other two.

(Note: Sometimes you have to stretch yourself a bit. Opportunities like this one are where writers earn their keep.)

GOOD: Speed, time and distance link inexorably, and we can’t consider one without involving the other two.

BETTER: Speed, time and distance function as a single, three-part equation, for one exists only where the other two are present.

BAD: The words were not spoken so much as a command as a gentle prodding, an understanding and empathy that gave Bill strength.

GOOD: He did not speak the words as a command so much as a gentle prod, with understanding and empathy that gave Bill strength.

BETTER: John offered the words not as a command, but as a gentle prod, with understanding and empathy to give Bill strength.

BAD:The wound had been made, and now the men could not be placated by my yielding. Without John willing to throw himself into the fray, I would surely be struck down by their numbers. As detestable as it seemed, my only recourse was undeniable: I would have to break through their lines and flee.

(Note: As is so often the case, Passive Voice led the author down a long, circuitous, Wordy path. On top of everything else, the following alternative chops the original word count of 54 down to 43, a 20% reduction.)

GOOD: I’d already inflicted the wound, and I would not placate the men now by yielding. If John didn’t throw himself into the fray, I would surely fall to their numbers. My only recourse, though detestable, was undeniable: break through their lines and flee.

Let me urge you, as I do all my clients, to make these your watchwords: Keep it strong and direct!

If you’ve studied the art and craft of writing at all, you no doubt have seen these warnings against Passive Voice. Nonetheless, I shall now call out the reinforcements, as it were.

The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers – John Gardner (Vintage Books)

I’ve excerpted the following, in applicable segments, from pages 98-100:

In the work of beginning writers, especially those weak in the basic skills of English composition, the usual mistake is that the writer distracts the reader by clumsy or incorrect writing… But the standard third-person narrator can never miss. If the narrator slips into faulty syntax, the reader’s mind tracks away from the action [sic] to the problem of figuring out what the sentence means. The distraction is almost certain to be emotional as well as intellectual, since the reader has every right to feel that the writer’s business is to say what he means clearly…

Clumsy writing is an even more common mistake in the work of amateurs, though it shows up even in the works of very good writers…

The most obvious forms of clumsiness, really failures in the basic skills, include such mistakes as inappropriate or excessive use of the passive voice…

Except in stock locutions, such as “You were paid yesterday,” “The Germans were defeated,” or “The project was abandoned,” the passive voice is virtually useless in fiction except when used for comic effect, as when the writer mimics some fool’s slightly pompous way of speaking or quotes some institutional directive. The active voice is almost invariably more direct and vivid: “Your parrot bit me” as opposed to (passive) “I was bitten by your parrot.” …In a story presented by the conventional omniscient narrator—an objective and largely impersonal formal narrative voice like, say, Tolstoy’s—the passive voice is almost certain to offend and distract…

On Writing Well – William Zinsser (Harper Collins)

I’ve excerpted the following, in applicable segments, from pages 108-109:

Use active verbs unless there is no comfortable way to get around using a passive verb. The difference between an active-verb style and a passive-verb style—in clarity and vigor—is the difference between life and death for a writer.

“Joe hit him” is strong. “He was hit by Joe” is weak. The first is short and vivid and direct; it leaves no doubt about who did what. The second is necessarily longer and it has an insipid quality; something was done by somebody to someone else. A style that consists mainly of passive constructions, especially if the sentences are long, saps the reader’s energy. Nobody quite knows what is being perpetrated by whom and on whom.

I use “perpetrated” because it’s the kind of word that passive-voice writers are fond of. They prefer long words of Latin origin to short Anglo-Saxon words—which compounds their trouble and makes their sentences still more glutinous…

Verbs are the most important of all your tools. They push the sentence forward and give it momentum. Active verbs push hard; passive verbs tug fitfully. Active verbs also enable us to visualize an activity because they require a pronoun or a noun to put them in motion… Don’t choose one that is dull or merely serviceable. Make active verbs activate your sentences, and try to avoid the kind that need an appended preposition to complete their work. Don’t “set up” a business that you can “start” or “launch.” Don’t say that the president of the company “stepped down.” Did he “resign?” Did he “retire?” Did he “get fired?” Be precise. Use precise verbs.

Make Your Words Work – Gary Provost (Writer’s Digest Books)

I’ve excerpted the following, in applicable segments, from pages 20-21:

In writing…active is more interesting than passive. …Your reader will fix his attention on the active words and phrases.

New writers often fall into the habit of casting their characters as the passive recipients of some activity, when they should be writing about people or objects doing things, making things happen.

A key to finding the active voice is to write about people, not things. “A good time was had by all,” for example, is a passive-voice sentence about good times. “Everybody had a good time” is an active-voice sentence about people.

The tip-off to these dull, passive-voice sentences is usually a compound verb such as “was driven” or “were presented.” Cash them in for sharp, short, interesting, active verbs, and your writing will work better.

The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White (Macmillan), is another indispensable source (many refer to it as the bible for writers). They address Passive Voice on pages 18-19.

‘Til next time, remember this: Writing well is not easy. It takes work. You mustn’t be lazy.

Build Tension through Structure – Part 2: Punctuation, Fragments & Italics

THIS POST IS FOR WRITERS:

Help your prose to pack a powerful “punch.”

In my article Build Tension through Structure – Part 1: Introduction, I mentioned several ways in which you can use the structure of your prose to build tension.  In this follow-up, I’ll focus on a few of those in greater detail, and provide some practical examples to show you how it’s done.

PUNCTUATION

I’ll focus here on three specific forms of punctuation that help to elevate the tension for the reader.  These are effective because of how we learn to read and write as children, and because of how our brains are subsequently wired to process the written word psychologically.  Writers grossly overuse one of these forms, in my opinion, while underutilizing the other two.

1)  EXCLAMATION POINTS: This would be the grossly overused punctuation.  Amateur writers too often act as if they just came from the composition store, where they had a “Buy 2 Get 3 Free” sale on exclamation points.  Many writers think they can create momentary tension—a quick punch—by throwing in an exclamation point.  And they would be right… if they do so only on rare occasions, when it truly lends some excitement.  The trouble starts when a writer thinks every fourth sentence is just that opportunity.  It’s not.  That’s just sloppy, lazy, melodramatic, in-your-face nonsense.  If, on the other hand, you use exclamation points only as often as you should, you’ll get a real bang for your exclamation buck.

      A)  HINT: Most exclamation points should occur in dialogue, not in the standard narrative.

      B)  The most effective exclamation points are those that convey not just emotion, and not just volume, but both.

      C)  You readers are not dullards and idiots, and you won’t fool them into thinking you’re offering powerful writing just because you lace it with exclamation points.  In fact, quite the opposite is true: you’ll convince them that your writing is so weak that you feel it necessary to mask your insecurities with a slew of exclamation points.

      D)  Treat exclamation points like thumbtacks: one or two to hold your piece of paper to the bulletin board is functional; eight hundred for the same purpose is just plain ridiculous.

      E)  If excessive exclamation points are bad for serious fiction (and they are), then doubling or tripling them at a single point is evil incarnate.  Don’t do it!  Ever!  One exclamation is always enough (at best), and often too much as it is; two or three is a sure sign that an amateur is at work.  The same is true of combining exclamation points with question marks (?!), which is a clear signal that the writer doesn’t know if he’s asking a question or making an exclamation.  In his confusion, he does both.  Bad.  Very bad.

      F)  Search your document for exclamation points:

              i)  If you have one for every 250 words or less, you have too many.  Period.  Self-edit with scalpel in hand.

             ii)  If you have one for every 250-500 words, you probably—and I mean very likely—have too many.

            iii)  If you have one for every 500-1,000 words, you’re probably okay.

            iv)  If you have one for every 1,000 words or more, don’t sweat it.

2)  DASHES: First, most editors prefer the Em dash (no spaces before or after).  However, the En dash (with spaces before and after) is still in use in some places.  Check the publisher’s requirements; if they have none, go with the Em dash.  Use a dash for its essential purposes, of course, but also use it occasionally—be careful not to overdo it—to give a little oomph to a sentence, as follows.

      A)  To offset an abrupt aside: I long to charge across the street to destroy him—no remorse—as if stepping on a cockroach.  This tool can provide a nice punch to a sentence.

      B)  To provide an abrupt interruption, which creates momentary excitement—tension—for the reader.  This is a useful tool in both narrative and dialogue.  See an example of this in the sample segment at the end of this article.

3)  ELLIPSES: Use these in the same way you use a dash as described in 2-B above.  The difference here is that, unlike the abrupt interruption of a dash, an ellipsis provides for a more gradual interruption, as your current thread fades away.  As with each of the tools we’re discussing here, use ellipses sparingly, and only where they provide an extra punch.  See an example of this in the sample segment at the end of this article.

FRAGMENTS

Sentence fragments (incomplete, technically improper sentences) can pack a real punch for your prose, as well, but only if—and this is a big, gigantic, humungous “if”—you use them sparingly.  Many modern writers use these so frequently that they not only lose their efficacy as a “punch” tool, they appear just plain sloppy and lazy.  One might reasonably ask if the writer simply never learned the rules of grammar and sentence structure.  A writer who offers fragments every third or fourth sentence inflicts upon readers a kind of “mental hiccups.”  I hate it!  Call me old-fashioned, but I believe writers should write.  In the following example, I utilize a number of fragments (in bold) to provide some punch to the segment.

————

Frozen forever in time at the age of thirty-six, Mom was beautiful and warm—she was love itself—and now she was gone.  Along with my childhood.  What choice did I have?  Was I ready?

               It hardly mattered.

               Law enforcement took rather a cursory glance at me, given both my young age and the circumstances of the event.  A state-appointed psychiatrist determined that, for just a moment, and in accordance with strict legal definitions, I was simply insane.  Temporary insanity?  Sure.  Why not?

               The psychiatrist thought so, and that was good enough for the judge.  They declared me healthy and normal, and sent me home.

               Ah yes, home.

————

ITALICS

Use italicized text for two purposes:

1)  Force a reader to emphasize a particular word.  I’ve done so a number of times throughout this article, so you have plenty of examples already.  The key is this: you want the reader to hear the written words just as he would if you were speaking them aloud.  We all do this in everyday conversation: elevate our volume and pitch to emphasize a particular word.  You create that effect in writing through italicized text.

2)  Show a character’s private thoughts.  Just beware of POV issues.  You must be in that character’s POV, or an all-seeing, omniscient POV, for the narrator to know the character’s private thoughts.

SAMPLE SEGMENT (Uses each of the tools mentioned in this article; expletives replaced by asterisks)

————

I floated still, adrift in an endless gray ocean of broken thought, struggling to make sense of the fluid that drenched my hands.

               It’s… it’s….  Oh, God, it’s Mom’s blood and brains.

               The maddening, driveling voice, like a spear in my gut, stabbed me again.  “For Christ’s sake, kid, stop ****ing around and give me a hand, will you!”

               Rage burned a red sheath over my eyes.

               I stood and walked to the killer, who looked up with drunken eyes that meant nothing to me.  They were evil.  I focused instead on his neck, called up all that I’d learned in Master Komura’s martial arts classes over the previous seven years, and….

               …and struck.

               Though strong for a fifteen-year-old, my success rested on the fragile physiology of that small patch of neck.  Indeed, to crush his trachea required more precision than strength.

               The slobbering murderer collapsed, clutched his ruined throat, and gasped for air that would not come.  His eyes blazed in one final, sobering realization.  They pleaded for mercy and begged an answer to the simplest question: Why?

               It didn’t matter.  Nothing mattered.

               Yet I had to make sure he understood.  “You rotten ****!  Did you think you could murder my mom and get away with it?”

               Anger roiled, and I started to shake.  I should have been crying for Mom.  Why wasn’t I crying?  I’d never known such fury.  I wanted to pummel him, again and again and again and again, as he lay helpless on the street.

               “What do you think now, you murdering **********?  Still feel like laughing it up?  How about another drink, you miserable—”

               His empty eyes stared back at me.

               I’d done it.  I’d meted out justice—simple, swift, final.

               Now I needed to… to….  I shook off the cobwebs as my neighbors gaped in stunned silence.  I turned to the right and—

               Oh God.  Oh God.

               My little brother, Alex, knelt at the edge of our driveway with a face painted in tears, confusion and terror.  Just seven years old, he wept alone on the worst of all possible days.  My feet were as tree stumps sprouting from the bottoms of my legs, as I shuffled over and crouched before him.  All the while, his gaze shifted between Mom’s car and me, and he blinked through the tears no dam could contain.

               He choked and sputtered, “I… want my… mommy.  Where’s Mommy?  I… I… I want my mommy!”

               His scream clawed at my heart, and I could barely whisper, “Me too.  I want her too.”

————

Tune in soon for more on “Building Tension through Structure,” and on other matters related to effective writing.  In the meantime, and as always, remember this: Writing well is not easy.  It takes work.  You mustn’t be lazy.

Build Tension through Structure – Part 1: Introduction

THIS POST IS FOR WRITERS:

Use punctuation that “punches,” and breaks that keep the reader breathless.

When you think of tension, you probably think in terms of plot – of a storyline that keeps you glued to the page. However, “tension” is also a momentary psychological effect you can create through the manner in which you structure your prose. It is this literary device, in my opinion, that often separates the great, thrilling reads from the merely satisfactory.

In a book, you can promote tension through structure in a number of ways:

1) CHAPTER BREAKS: This is perhaps the most obvious mechanism, the one with which we’re most familiar as readers. Every author looks for just the right spot to break chapters. The ideal chapter break accomplishes two key tasks:

      A) It closes out the chapter in a way that satisfies the reader. Think of each chapter as a mini-book/story, requiring its own unique conflict and resolution, and you’re likely to ace this requirement.

      B) It sets up the next chapter, providing an anticipatory thrill for the reader, such that he won’t even think about putting the book down.

2) STORY BREAKS: Formats vary on these, from simple multi-line breaks in the text, to line breaks before and after a 3-asterisk (***) designation (my preference), to a long centered line between segments. Think of these as sub-chapter breaks. They typically indicate one or more of the following:

      A) You abruptly change scene, often skipping forward in time or flashing back.

      B) You change POV from one character to another.

3) PARAGRAPH BREAKS: As basic as it sounds, this is, in fact, one of the most difficult aspects of writing for beginning writers to grasp. You simply have to develop a feel for it, as there are many reasons for which to break a paragraph. We tend to focus on the most elementary of reasons: a change in subject or a need for a little “white space.” However, one of the most underused tools is the isolating of the last sentence of a paragraph (at least under normal circumstances), making it a stand-alone paragraph. This might give that final sentence extra punch, greater impact.

4) SENTENCE BREAKS (CADENCE/RHYTHM): Should that be one sentence or two? Or three? At what point does a series of short sentences become too choppy? At what point does a series of long sentences become too wordy and long-winded? How should you alter the sentence lengths and syllable counts? You must mix it up, or you will create the “Lullaby Effect,” and your readers will lose interest, or even nod off. Use what Harry Chapin, the late, great songwriter/storyteller, called “the rhythm of time.” Make your words sing.

5) SENTENCE FRAGMENTS: When does a 1- to 5-word fragment provide an extra punch? When is it just plain lazy, sloppy writing? Fragments are a powerful tool, when used sparingly and to good effect. When overused, however, they cause readers like me to start fuming.

6) PUNCTUATION: This most basic element of writing remains one of the most confusing. The comma must be the most misunderstood, misused, abused, and amusing symbol in the English language. It can be the writer’s greatest friend… or fiercest enemy. For that matter, did you notice that little ellipsis I just used? When should you use them? And I haven’t even mentioned the almighty dash or – hold your breath now – the exclamation point! At what point do you overuse these types of punctuation?

7) ITALICIZED (EMPHASIZED) TEXT: When you want a word to really jump out at a reader, as it would if you spoke the word, italicize it. Just be careful; don’t overdo it.

Okay, so I’ve listed a number of ways in which you can promote tension through structure, but I left many questions unanswered. It’s a long and detailed subject, so I’ll be tackling them one-by-one – not necessarily in order – over the next few weeks. I wanted to plant the seed, so that you’ll be thinking about these as you sit down to write your masterpiece.

Tune in soon for the rest. In the meantime, and as always, remember this: Writing well is not easy. It takes work. You mustn’t be lazy.

When is good grammar required?

THIS POST IS FOR WRITERS:

“Great Story, Poor Prose”

When can you sacrifice good grammar in the name of personal style and free expression? The short answer: anytime you want.

Ah, if only it were that simple. So much depends upon your goals for a particular article, short story or book. Or for your career as a writer, for that matter.

Question #1

Do you hope to publish through traditional venues (magazines, anthologies, mainstream publishers), or do you plan to enter it in a contest?

If you answer any part of that, “Yes,” your options just dropped.

Well-established authors, having established a loyal and hungry readership, might get away with occasionally cavalier disregard for proper grammar. On the other hand, they might disappoint their fans and drive them away. For example, I am, or have been, a fan of several contemporary authors, reading anywhere from three to twenty-three of their books. Two of those authors, however (no, I shall not name them), have finally driven me away after I’ve read a half-dozen or more of their books. Have their stories and characters become too formulaic and predictable? Perhaps. Yet the thing that really jumps out at me is how sloppy their writing has become.

What happened? Did they become too big to have to worry about mundane details such as writing properly? Are their editors afraid to confront their cash cows? Are they so driven to produce two or three or four books a year that they can only offer prose that reads like a Dick and Jane elementary school primer? Frankly, I assume those authors no longer respect me, the customer, enough to provide a quality product.

So be it. I read enough authors producing enough quality work that I don’t need to settle for that.

Now, if you’re a new or emerging author, someone who’s not bringing buckets of cash through the front door, agents and editors will hold you to strict professional standards. They’re unlikely to forgive poor grammar. Even if you have a catchy, compelling style, they may not read enough of your submission even to discover that fact. They have precious little time to review unsolicited queries from first-timers, so they often, upon seeing poor grammar and structure on the first page (or paragraph), set it aside and reach for the rejection slip.

First impressions mean everything. If you’re an unknown, you’ll have exactly one opportunity, and a short one at that, to sell yourself as a professional. And professional writers know how to write. It really is, as it turns out, just that simple.

Question #2

Do you hope to attract a broad and regular readership at sites such as HubPages.com, a blog, or other online content farms?

If you answer, “Yes,” your options remain limited. Avid readers know instinctively (from experience) or definitively (from education) what constitutes bad writing. Even if they muscle their way through one of your articles, short stories or book chapters laced with poor grammar, they’re unlikely to return to your site in the future.

Haven’t you had this experience yourself, as a reader? I sure have—more often than I’d like to admit.

Why would you toil to promote your work, to build your readership, only to chase them away after they’ve finally found you? How much time do any of us have in our busy schedules to read?

Yes, you must provide interesting content, and a style that readers enjoy, but you must also provide quality. For a writer, that means you can… well, that you can write. Respect your readers, treat them as the treasure they are, and you’ll likely build a lasting relationship.

Question #3

Are you planning to self-publish, whether electronically or in print? If so, why are you publishing? Is writing just a hobby for you, an emotional outlet, a true vanity project—something for which you never intend to make any real money?

If you answer, “No,” you would do well to return to Question #1.

If you answer, “Yes,” I offer this follow-up question: So what? You still want readers, don’t you? You still want your first few readers to recommend your work to others, to advance your readership. You don’t want them to post bad reviews or comments, or chase potential readers away. Even if the financial aspect of your publishing isn’t the most important, surely you want readers. Why else would you publish it?

In which case, everything I’ve said above still applies.

Bottom Line

In the art of writing, no such thing exists as a “100% Rule.” We writers routinely break the rules, yet we do so for effect, to provide a nice punch at just the right moment. When we violate the rules because we don’t know them, or don’t care to exercise diligence or respect in following them, then the writing devolves into a sloppy, amateurish mess.

Style preferences are completely and extraordinarily subjective. One reader’s garbage is another reader’s most brilliant piece ever. Readers’ tastes and preferences are as diverse as writers’ styles, so you may well carve a niche for yourself with your catchy style and utter disregard for the rules of grammar.

Just don’t expect editors or agents to trip over themselves to gobble up your material. Or to become anything more than a niche writer.

‘Til next time, remember this: To write well, you must work hard. To succeed in this tough gig, you mustn’t be lazy.

Serial Commas: Should you use them?

THIS POST IS FOR WRITERS:

“Commas: Serial Killers of Pace”

A serial comma, also called the Oxford comma or the Harvard comma, is the comma that precedes the last item in a list.

Example: The huge barn housed cattle, horses, and goats.  The comma preceding “and goats” is the serial comma.

Opinion varies on whether or not to use the serial comma, which ultimately makes it an issue of stylistic preference.  Some publications may have specific requirements in this regard, which you may want to investigate before submitting to them.  However, given the relatively even split of opinion on the issue, I’d advise you decide on your own preference, or that of your personal editor, if you don’t have a strong opinion, and just stick with that.

As an editor, writer and reader, I have a strong opinion: I hate commas unless they’re absolutely necessary.  Why?  Because I’m a big fan of maintaining a rapid pace in prose, and commas are anchors on the Ship of Pace.  Usually.  It’s not quite that simple, since quick, choppy prose that makes the reader feel as if she has the hiccups is not good either.  We must mix it up from time to time to avoid creating the Lullaby Effect and putting our readers to sleep.

Thus, minimizing commas is a general rule—for me, at least—and like all rules of literature, not a 100%-er.

While in college back in 1979, I read an essay about the use of commas—not in a writing class, but in a psychology class, of all places.  I wish I could remember the name of the essay or its authors, or that I could find something on the internet about it, but I’ve been unable to do so (They wrote the piece in the pre-internet era.).  Thus, I will have to paraphrase in summary here.

1)       Three psychologists completed a 5-year study about how people read—not what they read, but how.  Their entire subject group consisted of American college students.

2)       Their study covered many different facets of writing, but for the purpose of this article, I’ll focus on only that portion relevant to the use of serial commas.

3)       They determined that we process the written word primarily at the sentence level.  They went to great pains to explain that this didn’t mean words were unimportant—of course, they were.  Paragraphs and chapters were also important.  However, the sentence surpassed those elements in its impact on readers.  The sentence was the primary unit of measure, if you will, at which the reader derived emotional involvement, interest, curiosity, intellectual growth, etc.

4)       Because of that, readers were most satisfied when they completed a sentence and moved on to the next one.  They felt they were making real progress when they did so.

5)       As a result, readers were most frustrated by sentences that ran too long, or that offered too many breaks.  The breaks could take any form—commas, semicolons, dashes, etc.  If they got hung-up in a sentence; if they couldn’t escape it and move on to the next sentence; readers became agitated.

6)       Long, multi-segment sentences with multiple commas were particularly frustrating for them.

7)       For some readers, this reaction was a conscious one of which they were perfectly aware.  For most readers, however, the impact occurred at the subconscious level.  They couldn’t explain why they disliked certain pieces; they just did.

As I read that essay, and as I engaged in subsequent discussions about it in class, I came to a couple of conclusions.  First, the authors’ study was well prepared, well presented and compelling.  Second, it struck me as logical.  After all, as a reader, I felt that way about commas myself.

Indeed, when I read A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens, later that year, I shook my head at all the discussion about what a brilliant opening paragraph he offered.  Huh?  I hated it—not its message, but its structure: 1 sentence with 17 commas, and 1 dash thrown in for good luck.

My approach to commas is simple: you must use them when you must use them.

1)       To separate independent clauses

2)       To break after a transitional introduction

3)       To set off a non-restrictive clause in the middle of a sentence

4)       To set off an appositive, an aside or a parenthetic expression in the middle of a sentence

5)       To set off a name or title in direct address (dialogue)

6)       And much, much more.

#6 above is rather my point.  There are so many instances where you must use a comma, where you must force the reader to pause, that to add them where you don’t need them strikes me as foolish.  That’s just my opinion, folks—well, mine and the authors of that study, not to mention a good percentage of everyone else.

If the conjunction prior to the last item in the list makes the separation clear and unambiguous, I prefer to leave off the comma.  If there is any possible confusion, I add the comma.

Example: The flag is red, white and blue.  This sentence will confuse no one.

Example: The four shirts in my closet were blue, white, black and green and yellow.  Uh-oh, this is a problem.  Regarding the last two shirts, is one black and green and the other yellow?  Or is one black and the other green and yellow?  The reader has no way to know unless you plug in a serial comma to separate them.

Thus, a little common sense goes a long way.  Use the comma if you must.  Cut the comma if it adds nothing more than another pause for the reader.  If you achieve perfect clarity without the comma, leave it off.

This, by the way, applies to all commas, in my opinion (based on the study, which I continue to believe in).  If you can restructure your sentences to eliminate commas, at least consider doing so.  If that change doesn’t reduce the impact of your sentence/paragraph, or disrupt the rhythm and flow negatively, go with the non-comma (or fewer commas) alternative.

Most readers will love you for it, because they love a quick pace.

NOTE: If you’re writing a literary piece, you’ll have a little more flexibility than in genre fiction, as reader preferences often vary from genre fiction (quick, wham, bam, pow) to literary fiction (make the words dance).

‘Til next time, remember this: To write well, you must work hard.  To succeed in this tough gig, you mustn’t be lazy.

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