Welcome to “Ask the Coach.” As a writing coach, I answer questions from writers about making the work of writing happen, tackling craft, business, and personal questions along the way. (Have a question you’d like answered? Check out the details at the end of the article about how to submit one.)
Today I’m addressing a collection of shorter questions that haven’t quite warranted a full article but are useful nonetheless.
Here’s our first question, about capitalizing God, or not.
"I haven’t found a clear, unequivocal answer to when to capitalize God in writing fiction. ‘God damn!’ seems correct only because it’s the beginning of a sentence. ‘Oh my god,’ also seems correct. What about, ‘Do you believe in God?’ or ‘May God bless and keep you.’ Or ‘Your God hasn’t listened to my prayers.’ Is there a rule of thumb for proper usage?”
When it comes to grammar, capitalization, and punctuation, I have a few favorite resources, one of which is The Random House Handbook which my undergraduate English teacher used to
terrorize teach us. It advises, “Whether or not you are a believer, use capitals for names of deities, revered figures, and holy books.”
Mignon Fogarty, aka Grammar Girl, another of my favorites, guides writers to use “God” when referring to a named deity, while using “god” to referring to gods in general or descriptively. You can see her examples, here.
In general, I highly recommend picking up a good reference book to have at the ready on your desk, like The Chicago Manual of Style (though I personally love my 5th edition Random House Handbook), or possibly checking out a grammar app to use. (I don’t have one I’ve tested recently enough to make a recommendation, but two I’m aware of are Grammarly and ProWritingAid.)
Here’s our second question, about where to get feedback on horror stories. Although this question falls more in the realm of prose writing, it may be valuable for short film writers who want to create a collection of short story adaptations of their work as well, in order to establish a base of intellectual property and lend credibility when pitching.
"Hi Coach, As an aspiring horror writer, where do I go to get feedback on my short stories? I just started writing in this genre, and I feel I’m ready for some criticism in order to move on to the next level. I don’t belong to any writing groups IRL or on social media. I am looking for any advice.”
I’d suggest starting by looking for peer readers, beta readers, or an editor for feedback.
For peer readers, you might consider taking a horror short story class as a way of connecting with fellow horror writers or receiving feedback from your instructor. You could also consider hiring a horror short story instructor to give you feedback. Once you’ve made connections with your peers, they may have suggestions about connecting with beta readers who love the genre and like giving feedback.
If you’re feeling ready for it and it falls within your budget, you might explore working with a developmental editor who specializes in horror. I suggest Reedsy.com and WritersDigest.com as a place to start. At Reedsy, you can search for editors within a genre and form — I found 28 developmental editors who specialize in short stories and horror fiction specifically. Writer’s Digest offers short story feedback at $4 per page, though their feedback is not genre-specific. Check out their 2nd Draft Critique service here.
Here’s a similar question that’s lingered far too long in my unanswered question pile about children’s book writing:
“Hi, A year and a half ago I wrote a short story about a stuffed toy my husband won out of a claw machine. Each time I let my book ‘marinate’ I end up rewriting it and eliminating parts of it. Will this go on forever? I need a ghostwriter or an editor. Oh, and I also need an illustrator and an agent. I don't have any of those things and yet this story has made me a little crazy for some time now. On a serious note, how much revision does it take? Also, the story keeps growing. I'm at over 2000 words and the amount feels right [for the story]. Do I just let it grow? It's a children's story so I'm not too sure."
In your situation, I’d suggest checking out SCBWI.org, the Society for Children’s Book Writer’s and Illustrators, as well as Reedsy.com to connect with a children’s book editor to help you answer these questions and more, including target word and page counts. Revision can be never-ending, especially when we’re working on our own, so getting professional feedback can be a real game-changer. As far as the other professionals, unless you’re self-publishing, you won’t need to find your own illustrator (a publisher usually does that match-making), and it doesn’t sound like you need a ghostwriter. I’d start with an editor and then look into pitching agents who represent children’s books. I also recommend checking out the Children's Writer's & Illustrator's Market 33rd Edition: The Most Trusted Guide to Getting Published as another reference with information about agents, publishers, and more.
Here’s our fourth question, about screenplay formatting:
"I’m in the very early stages of writing, my very first time putting “pen to paper’ so to speak, and what are some of the best tips/styles/format when writing my script or script idea outline?
When it comes to script formatting, I always turn first to my copy of David Trottier’s The Screenwriter’s Bible: A Complete Guide to Writing, Formatting, and Selling Your Script. (David also teaches at Script University, as I do.) Hands down, his book is the go-to resource for answering questions about how to format various script elements like montages, flashbacks, scene headings, and more. John August’s website at JohnAugust.com is also extremely helpful, including his tagged Formatting section.
When it comes to outlining, I tend to use Highland 2, Scrivener, or Workflowy to get the big ideas down. I particularly like Workflowy because I can use it on the fly from any of my devices and because I can expand and collapse the sections neatly to alternate between seeing the big picture beats and drilling down into the details.
Here’s our last question, this time from a fiction writer, about quoting other works in a novel:
“I am writing a fiction novel and have a character who works in a book store. Can I legally use a quote from many different books (on the shelves)? I would mention the title and author. I compare it to the type of situation as ‘Ready Player One’ where so many video games and movie lines have been used. Thank you!”
To get started with the legalities around this question, I suggest checking out this article from Jane Friedman. The bottom line is that there’s a gray area about what’s considered “fair use,” and you may need to seek permission in order to cite other works. Generally, it depends on how you’re using it and how much of it you’re using. (Special considerations come into play with song lyrics in particular.) This doesn’t mean you can’t use quotes from other sources, but you’ll want to do the additional leg work to do so correctly. If you’re being traditionally published, the publishing company will most likely give you a form to use, if not, check out Jane’s article (linked above) for a sample permissions letter to get you started.
That’s a Wrap
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by all the questions and choices and decisions we have to make as writers. The good news is that as you build a library of trusted resources, coming by those answers gets easier and easier over time. In case it’s not evidently clear, you’ve just been given a glimpse into the resources I turn to when I have writing-related questions too.
Thank you for submitting your questions.
Submit your question to be answered anonymously via my online form here or send an email directly to email@example.com. Look for answers to selected questions in my monthly “Ask the Coach” column on the third Thursday of the month. And reach out to me on Twitter to share your thoughts: @JennaAvery.