Monthly Archives: May 2014

Dialogue in fiction: Part III – The nuts and bolts

By Arlene Prunkl, freelance editor

Balance of dialogue to narrative in fiction

Contents:

1. Balance of dialogue to narrative
2. Opening pages
3. Dialogue tags
4. Action tags
5. Tom Swifty adverbs
6. More dialogue tips

This is the third article in my series on how to write effective dialogue in fiction. In the first article, I covered foreign accents and dialects (you can read that post here). The second covered the essentials: realism through artifice, the four purposes of dialogue, and creating distinction between characters (read that post here). Today, I’ll focus mainly on the mechanics of dialogue—dialogue tags—but first I’ll explain how to balance dialogue and narrative.

1. Balance of dialogue to narrative

In the 19th century, when written fiction first began its dramatic rise in popularity, the ratio of dialogue to narrative was, in general, less balanced than it is today, with authors favouring narrative and expository description over dialogue. Thomas Hardy comes to mind, with his long pages of descriptions of the settings of his novels with little dialogue to break it up. In those days, the pace of life was slower, and that was reflecting in a more leisurely pace of reading, so long blocks of narrative—which are always read at a slower pace—were more commonplace. But in today’s hectic, multi-tasking world, just as the pace of life is faster, so do readers often prefer a faster-paced book. And dialogue fulfills that need; the more dialogue, the faster the pace.

Authors sometimes ask me what the ratio of dialogue to narrative should be, as if there’s a magic formula. But there is no “rule,” not even a soft one, for this question—each genre, each story, and each author is different, with different dialogue requirements. That said, for new authors writing popular fiction, a 50-50 balance between dialogue and narrative is something you may wish to aim for.

I’ve seen manuscripts with 90% dialogue as well as the other extreme, 90% narrative, and neither works very effectively. Too much dialogue without a narrative break results in “talking heads”; after a page or so, this begins to sound like disembodied voices floating off the page with no sense of the characters being grounded in a physical scene or location or even physical bodies. Conversely, readers can become weary of too much narrative without a break. The eye needs a visual break every so often from long, solid blocks of narrative, and dialogue creates some white space on the page. To that end, try to alternate your dialogue with narrative in a reasonably even fashion.

If you find yourself with too much dialogue, examine it closely to see whether it creates conflict, moves the plot ahead, or builds character. If not, sum it up in narrative form. And if you’ve got too much narrative, unearth the conflict between two or more characters and turn it into dialogue. In fact, this is a good exercise whether or not you think you have too much or too little of either.

2. A note on opening pages
Allow yourself to go a little heavier on dialogue in the opening pages of your novel. That’s because of what I mentioned above—dialogue is fast-paced, and you’re more likely to hook your readers with a brisk pace at the outset. Also, handled well, dialogue can reveal character faster than narrative does, and some immediate insights into your characters are a good way to lure readers in.

But it’s got to be compelling dialogue, and particularly in those first pages, it should fulfill all four of the purposes that I wrote about in my second blog post in this series, not just one of them: heighten conflict, advance the plot, develop characters, and provide backstory.

3. Dialogue tags
A dialogue tag, also called a dialogue attribution, is the he said, she said part of the sentence of dialogue that identifies for the reader who is speaking. A dialogue tag is the telling part of the sentence, while the actual dialogue is showing. When you use a tag, it’s you, the author, telling the reader who is speaking. (See my article on showing versus telling in fiction.)

There are several “rules” concerning dialogue tags that all fiction writers should respect—and then, of course, break sometimes, after they’re thoroughly learned. If you break too many of these rules, however, your writing will seem amateurish and outdated, so break them with discretion.

He said, she said . . .
For 90% of your tags, use the verb said. But novice writers sometimes make the mistake of thinking said is boring or repetitive, so they hunt for fancy synonyms like intoned, exhorted, averred, postulated, posited, opined, articulated, queried . . . the list is endless. Avoid these overblown synonyms, and please, never, ever use the tag ejaculated—unless you’re trying to be clever in a sex scene, and probably not even then.

While these overblown tags were much more commonplace in past centuries and decades, modern tastes in writing call for the simpler verb said. And for good reason: said is invisible to readers—our brains are so familiar with it that we gloss right over it without interrupting the flow of the dialogue. More elaborate verbs subtly jar readers out of the dialogue, breaking the flow, telling instead of showing even more than said does. That’s because the verb is conveying the emotion, which should be the job of the dialogue itself. Artificial-sounding synonyms for said are sometimes called said bookisms. Don’t ask me why.

Other acceptable replacements for said are asked and replied. And there are plenty of less visible verbs you can use very occasionally, such as murmured, whispered, bragged, exclaimed, agreed, admitted, confessed, stammered, yelled, mumbled, muttered, lied, interrupted, cried, complained, demanded, argued, snapped. These do convey emotion, but more quietly than true said bookisms. Google “synonyms for said” and you’ll find lots more of these. But use them judiciously or it’ll look as if you spend Saturday nights reading your thesaurus for fun.

He hissed, she chortled . . .
Avoid using human or animal noises or facial expressions in place of said. “Get out of my house!” he hissed. “You think I’m afraid of you?” she laughed. People don’t hiss or laugh their words. There are exceptions, of course—in the right situations. Very occasionally, people might bark or scream their words, for example. How to know the difference? Sometimes it just comes down to using your ear. If it “sounds” okay in the context, then use it—once or twice in your story.

Other common verbs that are wrongly used as dialogue tags are giggled, breathed, growled, snarled, groaned, smirked, chirped, chortled, smiled, sighed, yawned, huffed, warbled, panted, purred, squeaked, sneered, roared, snorted. Check all your tags—are they noises or facial expressions? Then they’re not in fact synonyms for said. Best to write, instead, “Get out of my house!” he said, his voice an angry hiss. “You think I’m afraid of you?” she said, laughing. “Okay,” he said, his smile a false one. “Oh no,” she said, groaning. “Oh yes,” she said, her voice a singsong chirp.

Be aware, if you use Google to find synonyms for “said,” that there’s a lot of misinformation out there. A cursory search showed me several websites that gave lots of human and animal noises as acceptable “synonyms” for said. Especially if you’re a newer writer, it’s best just to stick with the advice I’ve given here. (And yes, I know there are all kinds of famous authors out there who break these “rules” regularly. They can get away with it because their writing is otherwise so good or well known. But your job, as a newer writer, is to show emotion through the dialogue words themselves, not through the tags.)  Exception: it’s more acceptable to see these types of verbs in children’s, middle grade, and YA fiction than in adult fiction.

Be a dialogue-tag minimalist

With dialogue tags, minimalism is key

Be a dialogue-tag minimalist
Keep dialogue tags to the minimum necessary. Remem-
ber, tags are telling, and too many of them interfere with the flow of the dialogue and jar readers out of it. If you have only two characters conversing, it’s not necessary to use a tag for each piece of dialogue. For at least a few lines, it should be obvious that the dialogue is alternating. But don’t use them so infrequently that you make readers backtrack, counting lines, to figure out who’s speaking (I don’t know any reader who isn’t annoyed by this!). On the other hand, if you have more than two characters talking, be sure to identify who’s saying each line. Readers shouldn’t have to work at reading your dialogue, nor should you ever let them be jarred out of the story.

Always read your dialogue aloud to make sure you aren’t using unnecessary tags. A great exercise is to try taking out all the tags, and then adding back in only the ones that are essential to comprehension.

But . . . for longish monologues, write no more than a few sentences or a short paragraph without adding a new tag, even if you have to break up the monologue. Readers will appreciate the mental and visual break, and the speech will flow much more easily.

4. Action tags or beats
Action tags are small actions, gestures, facial expressions, or other body language interspersed in the dialogue that identify who the speaker is without using a tag like said. Action tags are also sometimes called action beats because they provide a beat or a pause in the dialogue, which is good for pacing. I’m a big fan of action tags because they serve multiple purposes: 1) they identify the speaker, 2) they avoid the said tag, so they show rather than tell, 3) they help reveal more of what’s going on in the scene, and 4) they reveal character traits and idiosyncrasies. Here are some examples:

→ Before: “Where did I put the password?” Keith said, his hand trembling as he fumbled for the important scrap of paper.
→ Before: “Where did I put the password?” Keith said. His hand trembled as he fumbled for the important scrap of paper.
→ Better with action tag: “Where did I put the password?” Keith’s hand trembled as he fumbled for the important scrap of paper.

Action tags can be fuller sentences like the one in my example, or they can be as simple as a subject and a verb: He grimaced. Isabel smiled. He scratched his nose. She pouted. She flipped her hair back. Jason laughed. She fiddled with her ring. He breathed heavily.

To make the most of action tags, have them showing specific character quirks (which add to character development) or in some way adding to the scene’s development. But, just like everything else with creative writing, balance is key. Use them to add variety, but don’t overuse them, and don’t always place them evenly. They can go at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of the line or lines of dialogue. For example:

→ Isabel tested the door. “My dad is in this room. We’ll need to let them out eventually.”
→ “My dad is in this room.” Isabel tested the door. “We’ll need to let them out eventually.”
→ “My dad is in this room. We’ll need to let them out eventually.” Isabel tested the door.

5. Tom Swifty adverbs
These are adverbs ending in ly that modify the word said, resulting in telling readers how something is said, rather than showing it. The unfortunate Tom Swift is the protagonist in a series of adventure books for boys that became notorious for relying on these types of adverbial dialogue tags, which evolved into “Tom Swifty” puns. The joke has spawned thousands of these puns, the archetype of which is “We must hurry,” said Tom swiftly. Here are a couple more: “I only have clubs, spades, and diamonds,” said Tom heartlessly. “I don’t much like painting,” said Tom uneasily. “Don’t sit at the back of the boat,” said Tom sternly. (Just google “Tom Swifties” to read countless others.)

While these may be clever, they’re now nothing but embarrassing for the authors of these books. The point here is to avoid becoming an author who’s the butt of jokes because you abuse adverbs in your dialogue tags. For the most part, the dialogue itself should carry the responsibility for showing the emotion of what’s being expressed, without the need for adverbs. The exception is when understatement, irony, or sarcasm is used. If a simple “Please” is being stated sarcastically, for example, it may be necessary to show that by using that adverb. “Please,” he said sarcastically. (Better, simply write, “Please,” he said, oozing with sarcasm. Or use an action tag.)

6. A few more dialogue tips:
• Dialogue tags needn’t always go at the end of the line or lines of dialogue. For variety, place them in the middle, where a natural pause might occur after a comma or a dash or a period. Examples:

→ “You’re not making any sense—because they’re dead! We’ll never see them again,” Jason said.
→ “You’re not making any sense,” Jason said, “because they’re dead! We’ll never see them again.”
→ “You’re not making any sense—because they’re dead!” Jason said. “We’ll never see them again.”

But avoid beginning a line of dialogue with he said or she said. Our minds have been conditioned to read the dialogue first, which keeps us anchored in the fictional world. And said tags maintain their “invisible” status at the end of a line of dialogue, whereas they jump out at the reader if they’re placed at the beginning. But it’s perfectly okay to use an action tag at the beginning.

• Vary the length of lines of dialogue. If one character has a lot of lines, then give the next speaker fewer lines. Mix it up. Regularly intersperse dialogue with action tags and narrative or expository description. The reader’s eye wants to see a little white space on the page.

• Avoid overusing a character’s proper name in both dialogue and action tags, especially if it’s your POV character. Readers should be able to recognize your POV character by how he speaks, his mannerisms, etc., so it’s not necessary to use his name in each tag. Use pronouns when it’s already clear who the speaker is and a proper name isn’t essential to the meaning.

• If you have only two characters conversing, try occasionally using the  recipient’s name in the dialogue itself. This will tell readers that it’s the other person speaking. “Okay, Jason, I’m not happy about this but I’ll do it anyway, just for you.” But people don’t use each other’s proper names very often in conversation, so use this trick frugally.

• Should the tag said come before the name (or pronoun) or after? Should you write “Tom said” or “said Tom”? Some “experts” say that modern writing should use “Tom said” and “she said,” and it’s more old-fashioned to write “said Tom.” I say it depends on content and context. If your story is set in the past, there’s nothing wrong with writing “said Constance.” And if it’s set in the present, you can try mixing them up. Listen to your writing; hear it in your mind—and out loud too. Which sounds best to your writer’s ear? However, I’d suggest leaving “said she” and “said he” for poetry.

In summary
In this post, I’ve covered some of the nuts and bolts of dialogue writing, focusing on how to achieve a balance of dialogue to narrative, and giving you plenty of information on how to write effective dialogue tags. In my next posts, I’ll address the following:

• Conciseness in dialogue
• Contractions
• Punctuation
• Info-dumping in dialogue
• Writing internal monologue – direct and indirect thoughts

For more information on dialogue writing, see see Part I of the series, covering how to write authentic dialects and foreign accents, here. See Part II of this series, Dialogue Essentials, here.

♠ ♠ ♠

book and manuscript editing

Arlene Prunkl is a
and the owner of PenUltimate Editorial Services
You can find her on , , , and Facebook
May 29, 2014

 

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Dialogue in fiction: Part II – The essentials

By Arlene Prunkl, freelance editor

Dialogue in fiction - essentialsContents:

1. Realism through artifice
2. Dialogue’s primary purpose
3. The three other purposes of dialogue
4. Distinction between characters

Two months ago, I got a little ahead of myself by writing a post on how to write authentic foreign accents and dialect in your fiction dialogue. Today, I’m going back to square one to discuss the basics of writing dialogue in fiction. This will be the second post in a five-part series because there’s lots to cover.

Writing effective dialogue for your fictional characters is just one of many important skills you’ll need to master if you want to be a successful fiction writer. For most writers, it’s not a skill that comes naturally or instinctively. Just like other fiction-writing techniques, writing effective dialogue is a skill that needs to be learned through lots of study and practice.

1. Realism through artifice
If your written dialogue sounds exactly like two people talking in real life, you’re making a mistake. When writing fiction dialogue, the point is to convey the impression of real-life speech, not mirror it. It should sound natural and realistic, but it should never be realistic. Dialogue in fiction is artifice, not realism. You need art, craft, and skill to write authentic-sounding dialogue.

The next time you’re sitting in Starbucks or your favourite coffee joint, take a few minutes to listen to people around you talking. When people speak in real life, they use a lot of filler words like uh and um, like and well. In particular, kids these days—and I mean grown-up kids too, in their twenties and beyond—punctuate their spoken sentences with endless likes. “Well, uh, I think I’ll, like, call my parole officer so, like, I can get it over with. Like, I’d rather be having, like, a root canal, eh?” (Okay, I’m exaggerating to make a point, but you get the idea.) Even I’m guilty of it. I’m appalled that the word like as filler creeps into my speech from time to time, but it, like, can hardly be avoided in today’s culture, you know?

In real life, people don’t speak proper English. They interrupt each other, hem and haw, use those filler words, hesitate, speak in incomplete, grammatically incorrect sentences, repeat themselves, and jump from one unrelated thought to other. Keeping in mind that you want to only give the impression of real-life speech, effective fiction dialogue should be a balance between how people naturally talk and more formal narrative and expository writing, using good but relaxed grammar for the most part, but still keeping the tone of the dialogue true to real life. You should neither write as lazily as people speak in real life nor as formally as you would write in the rest of your story. A balance works best.

Yes, this all takes work and practice. One of the most effective things you can do to improve your dialogue writing is to read it out loud, or have someone else read it to you. Record yourself (or the other person), and listen back carefully for stiffness and unnaturalness. A further technique is to first write all the dialogue in perfectly grammatically correct sentences. Then, again, read them aloud—you’ll quickly see how stilted they are. Now go back and rewrite, toning down the language, removing some of the words, and adding a little filler without changing the meaning of the sentence. With practice, by listening and observing, and by reading aloud, you’ll begin to see the difference between formal writing and the spoken word.

2. Dialogue’s primary purpose
One of the tougher problems novice fiction writers (and experienced writers, too) face is deciding when to write dialogue instead of narrative. When is the best time to stop the narrative flow and inject some dialogue into the mix? When making this decision, it’s best to keep in mind the purposes of dialogue. Dialogue has several concrete purposes in fiction besides just randomly having people talk to break up the narrative.

The number-one purpose of dialogue is to heighten the emotional stakes and increase the conflict and tension. These two elements should always be part of a well-plotted novel. Whenever the drama between two characters is escalating emotionally, that’s the time to break off the narrative and inject some dialogue. It needn’t be a major crisis; any dissonance or small disagreement in the scene will usually work better as dialogue. If the scene has only one character experiencing conflict—internal or external—this can be shown through the use of the character’s direct thoughts, sometimes called internal dialogue. (I discuss internal dialogue at length in the fifth article in this series here.)

Conflict is the basis of all good fiction, as explained in my blog post What is plot? Pinning down fiction’s elusive structure. Without conflict, you have no plot, just the events out of somebody’s diary. Similarly, conflict is the basis of all good fiction dialogue. Without hints of conflict, you have a ho-hum everyday conversation. If you’ve studied the craft of writing, you probably already know that real-life events don’t usually make for good fiction. In our real lives, we attempt to minimize tension and conflict. In your fiction, you need to maximize tension and conflict if you want to keep readers turning your pages. Compare the following two snippets portraying the same scene, the first mainly narrative (telling), the second mainly dialogue (showing):

• Narrative

Micaela was furious with John for forgetting the map at the gas station. Time was critical, and now they were lost. She yelled at him, telling him what an idiot he was; not only were they pressed for time, but for their plan to work, they needed the map for the rest of their journey. She swore that she would never again leave him in charge of crucial details like this.

• Dialogue

John was driving too slowly. “Step on it,” Micaela said impatiently. “This isn’t going to work if we’re late.”
“I—uh—I’m not sure where we are,” he faltered.
“What? Didn’t you study the map ahead of time? Where is it? Let me see.”
“I don’t know. I might’ve left it at the gas station—”
“What!” She could scarcely believe what she was hearing. “You idiot! How could you be so stupid? We need that map.”
As if trying to infuriate her more, he didn’t respond, just continued staring at the road.
“We’re going to be late now. This is beyond ridiculous,” she said, seething.
Still he didn’t react.
She grabbed his shoulder, shaking him. “Our plan is ruined, and it’s all your fault. I’ll never leave you in charge of anything important again.”

Comparing the two, can you see how much stronger and more powerful the second scenario is, using mostly dialogue? Showing, using dialogue, takes more words, but they are often worth it for their emotional impact.

Writing effective dialogue in fiction3. The three other purposes of dialogue
Besides adding tension to the scene, dialogue has three further purposes. After writing each section of dialogue, first make sure you’ll pull readers’ emotional strings by injecting some elements of conflict and struggle. Then stop, reread it, and ask yourself:

• Does it advance the plot?
• Does it provide information or backstory?
• Does it help to develop your character(s)?

If it doesn’t fulfill at least one of these three other purposes, it probably needs to be axed or the information would work better as a narrative summary.

One excellent test is to ask yourself whether the plot would be affected if you removed the line or lines of dialogue in question, perhaps the entire conversation. If the story will still make sense without this particular exchange, then be ruthless and scrap those lines or the whole conversation. If you don’t do it, your editor likely will.

• Narrative purpose – advancing the plot. Think of the narrative as the action that moves the story ahead. Each conversation between two or more characters should move the narrative story forward in some way. If two characters are idly talking about the weather forecast or what they ate for dinner last night or their mother’s hip replacement, it’s unlikely (though not impossible) that those conversations are advancing the plot, pushing the narrative action ahead, or urging the reader to keep on turning pages. If so, cut or revise.

• Expository purpose – providing information and backstory. Exposition can be thought of as exposing facts, information, and descriptive details, including backstory. Sometimes authors will write an entire flashback scene just to show a bit of backstory, which is often a poor idea. Any more than a few well-chosen flashbacks can spoil a good story. One way to avoid flashbacks is reveal the backstory with some expository dialogue.

Let’s say you have a recently married couple in conflict. Instead of writing an entire flashback scene about their wedding that took place in the tropics but that has nothing to do with the main plot, simply have your protagonist provide the backstory by saying something about it:

“Remember, it wasn’t me who wanted the wedding on a sweltering atoll in the South Pacific. It was your lousy idea! And now you’re suffering the consequences. Why should I feel sorry for you?”

In a few sentences, by showing backstory in the dialogue, we’ve just eliminated the need for an entire flashback scene on a desert island that would have had little to contribute to the forward motion of the plot. As a bonus, we’ve also created tension and conflict, and we’ve given some hints about the character’s personality—which is the final aspect of dialogue’s purpose and my next point.

Delivering information, history, and backstory through the use of dialogue can be an effective way to show it, not tell it in the narrative. Showing is often preferable, as too much telling sometimes results in boredom for the reader. (For more on showing vs. telling, see my article Why “show, don’t tell” is the big myth of fiction writing.) However, be cautious of giving overly long descriptions and information dumps in your dialogue—that actually turns the writing into telling. I’ll discuss this problem more in Part IV in my series on dialogue.

• Conveying character. While creating conflict and tension, advancing the plot, and delivering information and backstory to the reader, dialogue should serve a final purpose: it should convey character. By this, I mean that it should add to the development of your characters by showing their individual, unique personality traits. Through dialogue, you can show anger, fear, empathy, passion, apathy, tolerance, introvert or extrovert tendencies, and a host of other human qualities that contribute to well-rounded, interesting, and unique characters.

In real life, we each have our own different vocabularies and vocabulary quirks. You can avoid having your characters all sound alike by keeping lists of words and expressions unique to their individual personalities. For example, I have a tendency to say “good grief,” a banal, old-fashioned interjection that nonetheless helps to characterize me. My next point goes into more detail about how to create characters with distinct personalities.

• Breaking rules. Now that you know the four purposes of dialogue, make sure almost every line of your dialogue fulfills at least one of these purposes, preferably more. Notice I just wrote almost: there are always exceptions, and rules are made to be broken occasionally. In the interests of good pacing and flow, not every single word of dialogue needs to fulfill these purposes all of the time. Sometimes you need to use a little filler as beats in your writing. (In fiction, a beat is a word or phrase or sentence that creates a subtle pause in the action or speech and helps with the rhythm, pacing, and flow of the sentence or paragraph.) Use expletives, interjections, and filler words and phrases judiciously to add subtle pacing and flow to your dialogue.

4. Distinction between characters
Make sure each of your characters has a distinct, unique voice. As I mentioned, no two people on the planet have identical speech patterns. A giveaway of weak writing is a bunch of characters who all sound the same—and, no surprise, you’ll usually find they all sound just like the author. You’ll show abilities of a skilled writer if you ensure each of your characters has their own individual speech quirks and idiosyncrasies. These will depended on the characters’ age, gender, ethnicity, geographic location, socio-economic background, education level, and personality type. For example, you wouldn’t have a five-year-old child speaking the same way as a 20-year-old, and a 20-year-old wouldn’t speak the same way as a 60-year-old. Different generations have different lingo, as do all the other groups I mentioned. Some characters may be loquacious; others may be reserved or uncommunicative. Others may be introverts or extroverts. Be particular about the language style of each of your characters.

The best way to do this is to create character sheets. Draw up a sheet for each character, both major and minor ones, and list not only details of their backgrounds, personality traits, and physical characteristics, but idiosyncrasies of their speech including slang, expletives, clichéd or unusual expressions, and filler words. Along with the more clichéd idioms, invent some creative, new expressions for some of your quirkier characters. A friend of mine likes to say “Holy chickens!” when showing astonishment. I love that!

Caveat: Use slang, expletives, filler, and clichés sparingly. Overuse will distract your reader, jolting her out of your fictional world, which is the last thing you want to do.

Finally, if some of your characters have foreign accents or speak in a particular dialect, portraying their voices subtly and authentically can add a great deal to their characterization. Use moderation, and do your research to make sure you’re representing the accent accurately without turning your character into a caricature. For an extensive look at writing foreign accents and dialect, see my first blog post in this series from March 2014, How to write authentic dialect and foreign accents.

In summary
In this article, I’ve discussed the need for artifice to create realism, the four purposes of dialogue (creating emotional tension and conflict, advancing the plot, providing information and backstory, and conveying character), and how to make your characters’ voices unique and distinct. The next few posts will cover the nuts and bolts of dialogue writing, including:

  • Ratio of dialogue to narrative
  • Opening pages
  • Dialogue tags (attributions)
  • Action tags or beats
  • Tom Swifty adverbs
  • Conciseness
  • Use of contractions
  • Punctuation
  • Info-dumping dialogue
  • Writing internal monologue – direct and indirect thoughts

♠ ♠ ♠

book and manuscript editing

Arlene Prunkl is a
and the owner of PenUltimate Editorial Services
You can find her on , , , and Facebook
May 15, 2014

 

____________________________

I welcome all comments. Please note that Disqus is a secure commenting system requiring moderator approval, and it may be a short while before I receive notification of your comment, approve it, and reply. Thanks for your patience!

 

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