Chuck Palahniuk gets my adrenaline pumping. Enjoy some writing advice from one of my favorite authors. - sld
::Writing Advice by Chuck Palahniuk::
In six seconds, you’ll hate me.
But in six months, you’ll be a better writer.
From this point forward—at least for the next half year—you may not use “thought” verbs. These include: Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires, and a hundred others you love to use.
The list should also include: Loves and Hates.
And it should include: Is and Has, but we’ll get to those later.
Until some time around Christmas, you can’t write: Kenny wondered if Monica didn’t like him going out at night…”
Instead, you’ll have to Un-pack that to something like: “The
mornings after Kenny had stayed out, beyond the last bus, until he’d had to bum a ride or pay for a cab and got home to find Monica faking sleep, faking because she never slept that quiet, those mornings, she’d only put her own cup of coffee in the microwave. Never his.”
Instead of characters knowing anything, you must now present the details that allow the reader to know them. Instead of a character wanting something, you must now describe the thing so that the reader wants it.
Instead of saying: “Adam knew Gwen liked him.” You’ll have to say: “Between classes, Gwen had always leaned on his locker when he’d go to open it. She’s roll her eyes and shove off with one foot, leaving a black-heel mark on the painted metal, but she also left the smell of her perfume. The combination lock would still be warm from her butt. And the next break, Gwen would be leaned there, again.”
In short, no more short-cuts. Only specific sensory detail: action, smell, taste, sound, and feeling.
Typically, writers use these “thought” verbs at the beginning of a paragraph (In this form, you can call them “Thesis Statements” and I’ll rail against those, later). In a way, they state the intention of the paragraph. And what follows, illustrates them.
“Brenda knew she’d never make the deadline. was backed up from the bridge, past the first eight or nine exits. Her cell phone battery was dead. At home, the dogs would need to go out, or there would be a mess to clean up. Plus, she’d promised to water the plants for her neighbor…”
Do you see how the opening “thesis statement” steals the thunder of what follows? Don’t do it.
If nothing else, cut the opening sentence and place it after all the others. Better yet, transplant it and change it to: Brenda would never make the deadline.
Thinking is abstract. Knowing and believing are intangible. Your story will always be stronger if you just show the physical actions and details of your characters and allow your reader to do the thinking and knowing. And loving and hating.
Don’t tell your reader: “Lisa hated Tom.”
Instead, make your case like a lawyer in court, detail by detail.
Present each piece of evidence. For example: “During roll call, in the breath after the teacher said Tom’s name, in that moment before he could answer, right then, Lisa would whisper-shout ‘Butt Wipe,’ just as Tom was saying, ‘Here’.”
One of the most-common mistakes that beginning writers make is leaving their characters alone. Writing, you may be alone. Reading, your audience may be alone. But your character should spend very, very little time alone. Because a solitary character starts thinking or worrying or wondering.
For example: Waiting for the bus, Mark started to worry about how long the trip would take…”
A better break-down might be: “The schedule said the bus would come by at noon, but Mark’s watch said it was already 11:57. You could see all the way down the road, as far as the Mall, and not see a bus. No doubt, the driver was parked at the turn-around, the far end of the line, taking a nap. The driver was kicked back, asleep, and Mark was going to be late. Or worse, the driver was drinking, and he’d pull up drunk and charge Mark seventy-five cents for death in a fiery traffic accident…”
A character alone must lapse into fantasy or memory, but even then you can’t use “thought” verbs or any of their abstract relatives.
Oh, and you can just forget about using the verbs forget and remember.
No more transitions such as: “Wanda remembered how Nelson used to brush her hair.”
Instead: “Back in their sophomore year, Nelson used to brush her hair with smooth, long strokes of his hand.”
Again, Un-pack. Don’t take short-cuts.
Better yet, get your character with another character, fast.
Get them together and get the action started. Let their actions and words show their thoughts. You—stay out of their heads.
And while you’re avoiding “thought” verbs, be very wary about using the bland verbs “is” and “have.”
“Ann’s eyes are blue.”
“Ann has blue eyes.”
“Ann coughed and waved one hand past her face, clearing the cigarette smoke from her eyes, blue eyes, before she smiled…”
Instead of bland “is” and “has” statements, try burying your details of what a character has or is, in actions or gestures. At its most basic, this is showing your story instead of telling it.
And forever after, once you’ve learned to Un-pack your characters, you’ll hate the lazy writer who settles for: “Jim sat beside the telephone, wondering why Amanda didn’t call.”
Please. For now, hate me all you want, but don’t use thought verbs. After Christmas, go crazy, but I’d bet money you won’t.
For this month’s homework, pick through your writing and circle every “thought” verb. Then, find some way to eliminate it. Kill it by Un-packing it.
Then, pick through some published fiction and do the same thing. Be ruthless.
“Marty imagined fish, jumping in the moonlight…”
“Nancy recalled the way the wine tasted…”
“Larry knew he was a dead man…”
Find them. After that, find a way to re-write them. Make them stronger.
Here’s a link to another awesome read from Writers Digest. I’m inspired.
Only one novel under your belt? If you turn outlike these one-hit-wonders, I wouldn’t feel too bad.
A scary story for this Friday the 13th… Enjoy!
I don’t know how he lost his face, and I don’t want to know. I don’t even know his name.
That dark alley behind the coffee shop – that’s where I met him. He sat on a piece of greasy cardboard, leaned against a dumpster. Blood-soaked bandages wrapped his face and head. I could only see his eyes.
I’d just finished my shift at the rescue mission. I was walking to my car, and I saw his pleading eyes. It was my Christian duty to stop. To serve.
The story he told me: he was a veteran suffering from a debilitating facial deformity received from a malfunctioning landmine.
Never mind that a landmine would have blown off his legs instead of his face.
My duty to serve obviously hindered my reasoning ability. I didn’t care what had happened to him. I only wanted to help him.
He said he needed a place to sleep, a clean bathroom. I wanted to take him to the hospital, but he said Baptist just kicked him out because of insurance. I offered to contact friends or family. He had none.
Staring off blindly down the alley, he said something I’ll never forget. He said, I don’t want to stay here in the dark. I can feel him now, he said, tapping on my shoulder.
He’s insane, I thought, and that belief made me work harder to help him.
I asked if he could walk, and he stood from the shadows in response. This wounded man was a giant. Shirt buttons strained to contain his barrel chest. His thick, muscled neck reminded me of a race horse, and veins rippled across his meaty hands.
Was I afraid of him? For a moment, just then, electricity prickled across my shoulders and down my back, but those eyes… they never changed.
I drove him to that cockroach motel over on Fifth Avenue. I couldn’t stop glancing in the mirror at the mummy-headed colossus cramped in the backseat of my little Honda. Guilt gnawed at me for not taking him somewhere better, but I did as well as any broke college kid could. The going rate was only 13 dollars a night, so I rented the room for a week and bought a sandwich from the vending machine outside.
We walked to room 108, and I handed him the key and sandwich. Told him I’d be back to check on him the next day.
Will you sit with me awhile? he said with a raspy, wavering voice. ‘I hate being all alone.’ His dark eyes glistened in the orange streetlight.
I have to get home, I said. It’s late.
North, about 30 minutes or so.
Do you live alone?
I live with my mom.
Oh, I bet she’s a nice lady, like you. A pretty lady, he said.
His ragged breathing made me uncomfortable. I suggested finding something funny on television to watch, and said good night. My hands shook so badly that I had trouble getting the key into the ignition.
Mom waited up for me, like she always does. She asked me about my night. I told her about Marcus, the toothless, leather-skinned man who sings to the volunteers every week. I told her about the new family with the six-month-old baby named Blessing. I told her about the elderly woman who would only introduce herself as Bette Davis’ Granddaughter.
I did not tell her that I took a seven-foot former foot soldier with fingers like sausages to a cheap hotel. I did not tell her about those sad eyes.
I climbed into bed, the white canopy bed I’ve had since I was six. Porcelain dolls stared at me from atop the dresser. Their dark, unblinking eyes and paper white faces loomed like tiny skulls, their delicate features blurred, vanished in my peripheral vision. I couldn’t help but think of the bandaged man in room 108. I resolved to finish what I’d started, and see to it that the man had a good week of food, rest and healing.
That’s what Jesus would do.
The next morning, I called Jay, a friend in medical school. I explained what had happened the night before, and I asked if he’d be willing to check on the man. Jay was a big guy, and I figured he could take care of himself. He agreed to go by the motel.
My day went on as usual. I arrived late to Western Civ and early to my English and Communications Law classes. I ate my lunch in the law library, and I drank my midday energy drink while I studied under the big Oak outside the University Center. I expected Jay to call me with an update, and by late afternoon with no word, I began to worry. His cell phone went to voicemail every time I called.
I stopped by the market and picked up a few things – bread, peanut butter, chips, breakfast pastries, and soda – and headed to Fifth Avenue. A rough-looking group of men loitered outside the motel office, so I parked directly in front of room 108. I knocked on the door, propping the bag of groceries on my hip.
Who’s there? the man called out.
It’s me, I called back, the girl from last night.
He chuckled. I have a surprise for you. Don’t be alarmed… your doctor friend came by, and he really helped me, he said through the door.
Great, I said, pleased that things had worked out. I thought maybe this visit could be my last.
The door swung open.
I gasped. I wanted to scream, throw the grocery bag to the ground, and run to my car; in reality, my body turned rigid. The bloodied bandages were gone. In their place, a lopsided mask of flesh stretched across his forehead and cheeks, and hung loosely near his jawline and neck. The skin appeared shiny and moist around his eye sockets and his mouth. I realized the hideous face wore a smile.
Pretty good, huh? he asked, turning his head from side to side.
An element of familiarity appeared in his deformed face, but I couldn’t place it. He seemed so happy and in such better spirits than I’d left him, so I forced a smile.
You must be feeling better, I said. I’m glad my friend could help, I said, and I handed over the grocery bag. He waved a cheerful goodbye as I backed out the car.
I tried calling Jay again as soon as I’d cleared the parking lot. Another voicemail. I told myself Jay was probably really busy with school, and he’d call as soon as he could. I went home and tried to forget that horrific and pitiful man, forget what I’d seen.
A couple of days passed. I hadn’t returned to check on the man, and I didn’t intend to, but Jay’s mom called. She’d dropped by Jay’s apartment, and it looked like he hadn’t been home in a few days. She’d been calling all of his friends to find him.
I made some calls. No one had seen Jay. I checked with his professors. Turned out he’d even missed a lab exam. That wasn’t like him. I knew deep in my soul that something terrible had happened to Jay, and it was my fault. The last person to see my friend was the man in room 108. I had no choice but to visit him again.
The steering wheel slid free from my grip. I shifted the gear into park, then held my hands, one at a time, in front of the air conditioning in an attempt to stop the sweating. A lanky man with a scruffy beard stood outside a neighboring room. He stared at me and looked like he was about to speak until he realized where I was headed, and then he quickly stepped inside his own room.
I rapped politely on the door marked 108. No answer. I used the meatiest part of my fist and knocked harder. Still no answer. The shades were drawn in the adjacent window. I knocked again, harder still, until the window shook in its pane. Either he’s dead, or he’s gone, I thought.
The woman in the motel office fluffed her dishwater hair. Can I help you, doll? she said as smoke trickled from between her vermillion lips. Her musky perfume was quite overpowering.
Yes, can you tell me if the man in room 108 has turned in his key?
She sat to look through a guest register, and a dripping sound grabbed my attention. Condensation from the wall air unit dripped down onto a waterlogged shag carpet, just missing an overflowing kitty litter box.
You said 108?she called from below the counter. No, he’s not gone, but we did get some complaints about him, she said. She stood to look at me. You mean the man with the… the face?she said, and she gestured toward her own, her cigarette bobbing between two fingers.
I nodded. What kind of complaints?
Smell, mostly, she said.
How could he smell that badly? I said. He’s only been here four days.
I don’t know, doll, but people were complaining about rotting garbage and some noise.
Did you check out the room? Did you find the source of the smell?
No, I’m not going in there until that man leaves, she said, her eyes wide. How on earth do you know him?
It’s a long story, I said. I swallowed hard and asked if I could I go in. He’s not there, I said. I’ve knocked, and there’s no answer, I said.
Okay, sure, doll. Room’s in your name, so you can go in. She opened a drawer and fished out a key. Here you go, doll. If you’re not back in 15 minutes, I’ll send someone in after you.
I stared at the locked door for a few seconds, gathering up the courage to go on. I had to go in alone. I had no choice. The key slid into the lock and clicked it open.
The door creaked open a few inches. The room was dark. I called out, Hello? No answer. A cloying scent hit me, and I felt my throat contract. I clawed at the neck of my shirt and tucked my mouth and nose inside. I took a deep breath, pushed the door as far as it would open and stepped inside.
My eyes skimmed over the disheveled bed, the sheets and pillows blotched with red. Silver pastry wrappers littered the floor. The peanut butter and the bread were left open on top of the television. I slid open the nightstand drawer. A brown leather wallet. I flipped it open, and there’s my friend Jay on the driver’s license. I had the wallet in one hand, held my nose with the other, and I started toward the bathroom. I didn’t even need to open the door to know. I could already see the thick dried blood splattered across the fractured yellow wall.
I ran back to my car. Why. That’s all I was thinking. Why. Why Jay?
I don’t remember the drive home, but I made it, and sat in the driveway for a while. My shirt collar felt cold and wet. I didn’t even realize I’d been crying. Jay’s wallet in my lap. I’d brought it with me. My evidence. I would call the police, but I had to tell my mom first.
I tossed my book bag to the floor. My mom was talking, on the phone, I assumed. Her laughter jingled down the stairs. It was good to hear her laugh. And then a man spoke. His voice was familiar, low and graveled. He paused at odd times, like his breathing was uneven.
I stuffed Jay’s wallet into my pants and headed up to the kitchen. She sat at the head of the table across from a large man. She was flush-faced and nervous, but she wore a sympathetic smile, the same smile I wore a few nights ago.
Oh, here you are, Mom said, looking past our guest. I was just getting to know your friend. He told me how sweet you’ve been, helping him these past few days.
The man turned, and all the oxygen vanished from the room. The stolen face, the one I knew had belonged to my friend Jay, leered at me, gray and decaying. Clumps of Jay’s thick, dark hair had fallen out to reveal the man’s own bloody scalp.
I know this is a surprise, he said to me. I hadn’t heard from you in a few days, and I so wanted to thank you, and to meet your lovely mama.
How’d you find my address? I asked with the steadiest voice I could manage.
Your friend, Jay, he nodded, he told me.
I stared into the monster’s eyes. They were still dark, but no longer pleading. I saw cold death.
Mama, can I talk to you for a minute… privately? I said.
We walked back downstairs, but before we could get to the living room, my mom began gushing about how nice he was, how he offered to help us do some work around the house, how good it would be to have a man around again.
He’s not safe, Mama, I said. You don’t want him here. Aren’t you afraid of him? His face…
Nonsense, she said. He’s a good man with a horrible deformity. God loves him as much as He does anyone else.
But, I whispered, I believe he’s a bad person… I think he’s done something to Jay.
Oh, sweetie, I’m sure Jay is fine.
And that was that. Three days passed. She made him a bed in the guest room. He patched the leaky overhang. She baked him banana bread. He painted the dining room and hung new curtains. They watched movies and sipped cocoa.
One night, while Mom washed up the dinner dishes, he said to me, You know – you could call me Daddy. I wasn’t sure what to say, and I said nothing. Jay was still gone, and I was too scared to go to the cops, especially now that this creature was living in my house.
He mowed the yard that morning. Mom made sure most of his chores and projects were outside now, because his stench had become unbearable. She knocked on my bedroom door, and said she needed to talk.
I overheard him talking to himself last night, she said. I think he might be losing his mind. He was crying, and at first, I thought I should go to him and comfort him, but then he starting mumbling… it sounded like he was arguing with someone, but he was the only one there. He said, No, no, no… my family, not my family, not my pretty girls. And his room was an awful mess this morning… like he’d been fighting something or someone.
Her face pinched. He needs help, she said.
I said to her, Mama, we’ve got to get him out of here. I’ll call the police right now.
We didn’t know he could hear us, not until he called down the hallway, Did I do something wrong? Mom slammed my bedroom door, and turned the lock.
We are having a private conversation, a family meeting. Please go downstairs. We will be out to talk to you soon, she said through the door.
He was silent for a moment, but then, he growled, I AM part of this family! He thudded down the hall to my room and kicked open the door, bumping it hard into Mom’s temple. She fell unconscious.
A voice – and I believe it was the voice of God – spoke to me, inside my head. This voice said, Now is the time to let go of fear. So I looked straight at him. My heartbeat steadied. My hands relaxed.
You murderer, I said, wearing the face of a good and decent person does not make you anything besides what you are – a devil in disguise.
He stepped closer. You are right, he said, such a smart girl. You want to see what I really am? I’ll show you. He swiped a hand across his head, and Jay’s rotting face slid away and hit the hardwood with a fleshy smack. Bloody pulp surrounded familiar eyes, and scars grew thick overtop of more scars under his chin where he’d skinned himself time and time again. His ears were nothing more than shriveled stumps, and his nose, a thin, bony protrusion.
Adrenaline caused my hands to shake, but unwavering confidence steadied my mind. I stared into his eyes without a grimace. I said, I’m not afraid of you.
I don’t want you to be afraid of me, he said. I want us to be a, a family… you see?
He stepped closer.
I think of you and your mother as my loves. You are precious to me.
I want to show you how much I care about you.
I want you to call me Daddy, he said, and his hand reached out toward my shoulder. His other hand unbuckled his belt.
I glanced past him toward the doorway. One more step, and I could clear it, so I stood still and waited. He moved, and I bolted past, his fingertips grazing my sleeve. I jumped over my mother’s collapsed body, through the doorway.
At the hallway’s end, I noticed my dad’s old rusted toolbox on the floor, just beyond the last corner. I figured I could reach it faster than the kitchen to grab a knife. I scrambled to open it, rummaged through the bottom compartment until I found the biggest, heaviest screwdriver, then I dove into the nearest room, the bathroom. I flattened my body against the wall behind the open door and waited, my weapon ready at my side.
Slow, heavy steps echoed towards me then stopped outside the bathroom. He listened for my breath, I suppose, and I realized I was already holding it. He shuffled on inside; I gripped the screwdriver tighter. He passed me by and stopped in front of the shower. He waited a moment, then flung back the shower curtain, metal rings scraping, just as I burst out from my hiding spot, the screwdriver held up next to my face. He jumped toward me, and I punched the metal point upward into the side of his neck, a few inches below his ear. I shoved it all the way in, to the handle. Blood spewed, so much blood, and he clutched the wound. Within seconds, he fell to his knees, grasping at the shower curtain, and his body slammed against the floor.
I stood shaking, watching his foul blood spread across the clean, white tiles. I went back to my room to check on my mom, and I must have fainted, because that’s all I remember. I woke up on the floor later, and called the police.
“So – you killed him,” Detective Hopson said, his voice edged with sarcasm, “this faceless man.”
“Yes, I did,” the girl said. She wanted to swipe at a stray hair, but she was unable to move her arms. She looked away, and said, “I had no choice.” The cold metal seat made her shiver.
The detective nodded at the two-way mirror behind her. He tossed a manila file folder onto the table. “Here are crime scene photo taken the same day you say you killed your friend.”
She frowned. “He was not my friend.”
“Let me open this folder for you,” he said. “I forgot for a moment that you are… incapacitated.” He smirked. He reached for the folder, opened it an inch and closed it again. “Are you sure you don’t want to revise your statement? These pictures will be used in court.”
“Yes,” the girl hissed. “I’ve told you everything.”
Detective Hopson opened the folder, removed a pile of eight-by-ten prints and fanned them out across the table. The girl glanced at the one on top, but something caught her eye. She leaned in. “Wait –,” she began, and a tear slid down her cheek. She examined the next photo, then the next, and the next, until she became frantic. “What is this?” she spat, gasping for air. “What kind of sick joke are you playing?”
“I’m not playing jokes, Aileen.” His voice was quiet, serious.
“This is not the same man!” she shouted. “He… he was a, a monster… he was going to rape me!” She rocked back and forth, twisting as much as her straight jacket would allow. “What have you done?”
The detective sighed. “Aileen, you are under arrest for the murder of Jason Clark…”
“That’s Jay! Why is Jay in my bathroom?” Aileen cried. “I didn’t kill Jay, HE did!”
“… and will be held in custody at the State Hospital for the Insane until your case goes to trial.”
“Stop saying that! No! No, no, no… I just want my family back… I’m not crazy!”
Detective Hopson waved at the mirror. Behind it, two asylum workers and the D.A. exited the room to assist in collecting their insane prisoner. One man remained, a friend of the family. Aileen’s mother was still in the hospital from her head wound, and he wanted to be sure Aileen had someone she knew present for the proceedings.
“Do you feel that?” Aileen asked to no one in particular, her eyes wide with fear, as she was led from the interrogation room. “The tapping on my shoulder….”
The man’s dark eyes bore through the mirror into the back of Aileen’s head, listening to her desperate screams, and sucking in raspy, irregular breaths.
Ten Mistakes Writers Don’t See (But Can Easily Fix When They Do) from Holt Uncensored
Like many editorial consultants, I’ve been concerned about the amount of time I’ve been spending on easy fixes that the author shouldn’t have to pay for.
Sometimes the question of where to put a comma, how to use a verb or why not to repeat a word can be important, even strategic. But most of the time the author either missed that day’s grammar lesson in elementary school or is too close to the manuscript to make corrections before I see it.
So the following is a list I’ll be referring to people *before* they submit anything in writing to anybody (me, agent, publisher, your mom, your boss). From email messages and front-page news in the New York Times to published books and magazine articles, the 10 ouchies listed here crop up everywhere. They’re so pernicious that even respected Internet columnists are not immune.
The list also could be called, “10 COMMON PROBLEMS THAT DISMISS YOU AS AN AMATEUR,” because these mistakes are obvious to literary agents and editors, who may start wording their decline letter by page 5. What a tragedy that would be.
So here we go:
Just about every writer unconsciously leans on a “crutch” word. Hillary
Clinton’s repeated word is “eager” (can you believe it? the committee
that wrote Living History should be ashamed). Cosmopolitan magazine
editor Kate White uses “quickly” over a dozen times in A Body To Die
For. Jack Kerouac’s crutch word in On the Road is “sad,” sometimes
doubly so – “sad, sad.” Ann Packer’s in The Dive from Clausen’s Pier
is “weird.”Crutch words are usually unremarkable. That’s why they slip under
editorial radar – they’re not even worth repeating, but there you have
it, pop, pop, pop, up they come. Readers, however, notice them, get
irked by them and are eventually distracted by them, and down goes your
book, never to be opened again.But even if the word is unusual, and even if you use it differently when
you repeat it, don’t: Set a higher standard for yourself even if readers
won’t notice. In Jennifer Egan’s Look at me, the core word – a good
word, but because it’s good, you get *one* per book – is “abraded.”
Here’s the problem:
“Victoria’s blue gaze abraded me with the texture of ground glass.” page 202
“…(metal trucks abrading the concrete)…” page 217
“…he relished the abrasion of her skepticism…” page 256
“…since his abrasion with Z …” page 272
The same goes for repeats of several words together – a phrase or
sentence that may seem fresh at first, but, restated many times, draws
attention from the author’s strengths. Sheldon Siegel nearly bludgeons
us in his otherwise witty and articulate courtroom thriller, Final
Verdict, with a sentence construction that’s repeated throughout the
“His tone oozes self-righteousness when he says…” page 188
“His voice is barely audible when he says…” page 193
“His tone is unapologetic when he says…” page 199
“Rosie keeps her tone even when she says…” page 200
“His tone is even when he says…” page 205
“I switch to my lawyer voice when I say …” page 211
“He sounds like Grace when he says…” page 211
What a tragedy. I’m not saying all forms of this sentence should be
lopped off. Lawyers find their rhythm in the courtroom by phrasing
questions in the same or similar way. It’s just that you can’t do it too
often on the page. After the third or fourth or 16th time, readers
exclaim silently, “Where was the editor who shoulda caught this?” or
“What was the author thinking?
So if you are the author, don’t wait for the agent or house or even editorial consultant to catch this stuff *for* you. Attune your eye now. Vow to yourself, NO REPEATS.
And by the way, even deliberate repeats should always be questioned: “Here are the documents.” says one character. “If these are the documents, I’ll oppose you,” says another. A repeat like that just keeps us on the surface. Figure out a different word; or rewrite the exchange. Repeats rarely allow you to probe deeper.
- FLAT WRITING
“He wanted to know but couldn’t understand what she had to say, so he waited until she was ready to tell him before asking what she meant.”Something is conveyed in this sentence, but who cares? The writing is so flat, it just dies on the page. You can’t fix it with a few replacement words – you have to give it depth, texture, character. Here’s another:“Bob looked at the clock and wondered if he would have time to stop for gas before driving to school to pick up his son after band practice.” True, this could be important – his wife might have hired a private investigator to document Bob’s inability to pick up his son on time – and it could be that making the sentence bland invests it with more tension. (This is the editorial consultant giving you the benefit of the doubt.) Most of the time, though, a sentence like this acts as filler. It gets us from A to B, all right, but not if we go to the kitchen to make a sandwich and find something else to read when we sit down.Flat writing is a sign that you’ve lost interest or are intimidated by your own narrative. It shows that you’re veering toward mediocrity, that your brain is fatigued, that you’ve lost your inspiration. So use it as a lesson. When you see flat writing on the page, it’s time to rethink, refuel and rewrite.
- EMPTY ADVERBSActually, totally, absolutely, completely, continually, constantly, continuously, literally, really, unfortunately, ironically, incredibly, hopefully, finally – these and others are words that promise emphasis, but too often they do the reverse. They suck the meaning out of every sentence.I defer to People Magazine for larding its articles with empty adverbs. A recent issue refers to an “incredibly popular, groundbreakingly racy sitcom.” That’s tough to say even when your lips aren’t moving.In Still Life with Crows, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child describe a mysterious row of corn in the middle of a field: “It was, in fact, the only row that actually opened onto the creek.” Here are two attempts at emphasis (“in fact,” “actually”), but they just junk up the sentence. Remove them both and the word “only” carries the burden of the sentence with efficiency and precision.(When in doubt, try this mantra: Precise and spare; precise and spare; precise and spare.)In dialogue, empty adverbs may sound appropriate, even authentic, but that’s because they’ve crept into American conversation in a trendy way. If you’re not watchful, they’ll make your characters sound wordy, infantile and dated.In Julia Glass’s Three Junes, a character named Stavros is a forthright and matter-of-fact guy who talks to his lover without pretense or affectation. But when he mentions an offbeat tourist souvenir, he says, “It’s absolutely wild. I love it.” Now he sounds fey, spoiled, superficial.. (Granted, “wild” nearly does him in; but “absolutely” is the killer.)The word “actually” seems to emerge most frequently, I find. Ann Packer’s narrator recalls running in the rain with her boyfriend, “his hand clasping mine as if he could actually make me go fast.” Delete “actually” and the sentence is more powerful without it.The same holds true when the protagonist named Miles hears some information inEmpire Falls by Richard Russo. “Actually, Miles had no doubt of it,” we’re told. Well, if he had no doubt, remove “actually” – it’s cleaner, clearer that way. “Actually” mushes up sentence after sentence; it gets in the way every time. I now think it should *never* be used.Another problem with empty adverbs: You can’t just stick them at the beginning of a sentence to introduce a general idea or wishful thinking, as in “Hopefully, the clock will run out.” Adverbs have to modify a verb or other adverb, and in this sentence, “run out” ain’t it.
Look at this hilarious clunker from The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown: “Almost inconceivably, the gun into which she was now staring was clutched in the pale hand of an enormous albino.”
Ack, “almost inconceivably” – that’s like being a little bit infertile! Hopefully, that “enormous albino” will ironically go back to actually flogging himself while incredibly saying his prayers continually.
- PHONY DIALOGUEBe careful of using dialogue to advance the plot. Readers can tell when characters talk about things they already know, or when the speakers appear to be having a conversation for our benefit. You never want one character to imply or say to the other, “Tell me again, Bruce: What are we doing next?”Avoid words that are fashionable in conversation. Ann Packer’s characters are so trendy the reader recoils. ” ‘What’s up with that?’ I said. ‘Is this a thing [love affair]?’ ” “We both smiled. ” ‘What is it with him?’ I said. ‘I mean, really.’ ” Her book is only a few years old, and already it’s dated.Dialogue offers glimpses into character the author can’t provide through description. Hidden wit, thoughtful observations, a shy revelation, a charming aside all come out in dialogue, so the characters *show* us what the author can’t *tell* us. But if dialogue helps the author distinguish each character, it also nails the culprit who’s promoting a hidden agenda by speaking out of character.An unfortunate pattern within the dialogue in Three Junes, by the way, is that all the male characters begin to sound like the author’s version of Noel Coward – fey, acerbic, witty, superior, puckish, diffident. Pretty soon the credibility of the entire novel is shot. You owe it to each character’s unique nature to make every one of them an original.Now don’t tell me that because Julia Glass won the National Book Award, you can get away with lack of credibility in dialogue. Setting your own high standards and sticking to them – being proud of *having* them – is the mark of a pro. Be one, write like one, and don’t cheat.
- NO-GOOD SUFFIXES
Don’t take a perfectly good word and give it a new backside so it functions as something else. The New York Times does this all the time. Instead of saying, “as a director, she is meticulous,” the reviewer will write, “as a director, she is known for her meticulousness.” Until she is known for her obtuseness.The “ness” words cause the eye to stumble, come back, reread: Mindlessness, characterlessness, courageousness, statuesqueness, preciousness – you get the idea. You might as well pour marbles into your readers’ mouths. Not all “ness” words are bad – goodness, no – but they are all suspect.The “ize” words are no better – finalize, conceptualize, fantasize, categorize. The “ize” hooks itself onto words as a short-cut but stays there like a parasite. Cops now say to each other about witnesses they’ve interrogated, “Did you statementize him?” Some shortcut. Not all “ize” words are bad, either, but they do have the ring of the vulgate to them – “he was brutalized by his father,” “she finalized her report.” Just try to use them rarely.Adding “ly” to “ing” words has a little history to it. Remember the old Tom Swifties? “I hate that incision,” the surgeon said cuttingly. “I got first prize!” the boy said winningly. But the point to a good Tom Swiftie is to make a punchline out of the last adverb. If you do that in your book, the reader is unnecessarily distracted. Serious writing suffers from such antics.Some “ingly” words do have their place. I can accept “swimmingly,” “annoyingly,” “surprisingly” as descriptive if overlong “ingly” words. But not “startlingly,” “harrowingly” or “angeringly,” “careeningly” – all hell to pronounce, even in silence, like the “groundbreakingly” used by People magazine above. Try to use all “ingly” words (can’t help it) sparingly.
- THE “TO BE” WORDS
Once your eye is attuned to the frequent use of the “to be” words – “am,” “is,” “are,” “was,” “were,” “be,” “being,” “been” and others – you’ll be appalled at how quickly they flatten prose and slow your pace to a crawl.The “to be” words represent the existence of things – “I am here. You are there.” Think of Hamlet’s query, “to be, or not to be.” To exist is not to act, so the “to be” words pretty much just there sit on the page. “I am the maid.” “It was cold.” “You were away.”I blame mystery writers for turning the “to be” words into a trend: Look how much burden is placed on the word “was” in this sentence: “Around the corner, behind the stove, under the linoleum, was the gun.” All the suspense of finding the gun dissipates. The “to be” word is not fair to the gun, which gets lost in a sea of prepositions.Sometimes, “to be” words do earn a place in writing: “In a frenzy by now, he pushed the stove away from the wall and ripped up the linoleum. Cold metal glinted from under the floorboards. He peered closer. Sure enough, it was the gun.” Okay, I’m lousy at this, but you get the point: Don’t squander the “to be” words – save them for special moments.Not so long ago, “it was” *defined* emphasis. Even now, if you want to say, “It was Margaret who found the gun,” meaning nobody else but Margaret, fine. But watch out – “it was” can be habitual: “It was Jack who joined the Million Man March. It was Bob who said he would go, too. But it was Bill who went with them.” Flat, flat, flat.Try also to reserve the use of “there was” or “there is” for special occasions. If used too often, this crutch also bogs down sentence after sentence. “He couldn’t believe there was furniture in the room. There was an open dresser drawer. There was a sock on the bed. There was a stack of laundry in the corner. There was a handkerchief on the floor….” By this time, we’re dozing off, and you haven’t even gotten to the kitchen.One finds the dreaded “there was/is” in jacket copy all the time. “Smith’s book offers a range of lively characters: There is Jim, the puzzle-loving dad. There is Winky, the mom who sits on the 9th Court of Appeals. There is Barbie, brain surgeon to the stars….”Attune your eye to the “to be” words and you’ll see them everywhere. When in doubt, replace them with active, vivid, engaging verbs. Muscle up that prose.
“She was entranced by the roses, hyacinths, impatiens, mums, carnations, pansies, irises, peonies, hollyhocks, daylillies, morning glories, larkspur…” Well, she may be entranced, but our eyes are glazing over.If you’re going to describe a number of items, jack up the visuals. Lay out the the scene as the eye sees it, with emphasis and emotion in unlikely places. When you list the items as though we’re checking them off with a clipboard, the internal eye will shut.It doesn’t matter what you list – nouns, adjectives, verbs – the result is always static. “He drove, he sighed, he swallowed, he yawned in impatience.” So do we. Dunk the whole thing. Rethink and rewrite. If you’ve got many ingredients and we aren’t transported, you’ve got a list.
- SHOW, DON’T TELL
If you say, “she was stunning and powerful,” you’re *telling* us. But if you say, “I was stunned by her elegant carriage as she strode past the jury – shoulders erect, elbows back, her eyes wide and watchful,” you’re *showing* us. The moment we can visualize the picture you’re trying to paint, you’re showing us, not telling us what we *should* see..Handsome, attractive, momentous, embarrassing, fabulous, powerful, hilarious, stupid, fascinating are all words that “tell” us in an arbitrary way what to think. They don’t reveal, don’t open up, don’t describe in specifics what is unique to the person or event described. Often they begin with cliches.Here is Gail Sheehy’s depiction of a former “surfer girl” from the New Jersey shore inMiddletown, America:
“This was a tall blond tomboy who grew up with all guy friends. A natural beauty who still had age on her side, being thirty; she didn’t give a thought to taming her flyaway hair or painting makeup on her smooth Swedish skin.”
Here I *think* I know what Sheehy means, but I’m not sure. Don’t let the reader make such assumptions. You’re the author; it’s your charge to show us what you mean with authentic detail. Don’t pretend the job is accomplished by cliches such as “smooth Swedish skin,” “flyaway hair,” “tall blond tomboy,” “the surfer girl” – how smooth? how tall? how blond?
Or try this from Faye Kellerman in Street Dreams:
“[Louise's] features were regular, and once she had been pretty. Now she was handsome in her black skirt, suit, and crisp, white blouse.”
Well, that’s it for Louise, poor thing. Can you see the character in front of you? A previous sentence tells us that Louise has “blunt-cut hair” framing an “oval face,” which helps, but not much – millions of women have a face like that. What makes Louise distinctive? Again, we may think we know what Kellerman means by “pretty” and “handsome” (good luck), but the inexcusable word here is “regular,” as in “her features were regular.” What *are* “regular” features?
The difference between telling and showing usually boils down to the physical senses. Visual, aural aromatic words take us out of our skin and place us in the scene you’ve created. In conventional narrative it’s fine to use a “to be” word to talk us into the distinctive word, such as “wandered” in this brief, easily imagined sentence by John Steinbeck in East of Eden. “His eyes were very blue, and when he was tired, one of them wandered outward a little.” We don’t care if he is “handsome” or “regular.”
Granted, context is everything, as writing experts say, and certainly that’s true of the sweltering West African heat in Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter: “Her face had the ivory tinge of atabrine; her hair which had once been the color of bottled honey was dark and stringy with sweat.” Except for “atabrine” (a medicine for malaria), the words aren’t all that distinctive, but they quietly do the job – they don’t tell us; they show us.
Commercial novels sometimes abound with the most revealing examples of this problem. The boss in Linda Lael Miller’s Don’t Look Now is “drop-dead gorgeous”; a former boyfriend is “seriously fine to look at: 35, half Irish and half Hispanic, his hair almost black, his eyes brown.” A friend, Betsy, is “a gorgeous, leggy blonde, thin as a model.” Careful of that word “gorgeous” – used too many times, it might lose its meaning.
- AWKWARD PHRASING“Mrs. Fletcher’s face pinkened slightly.” Whoa. This is an author trying too hard. “I sat down and ran a finger up the bottom of his foot, and he startled so dramatically …. ” Egad, “he startled”? You mean “he started”?Awkward phrasing makes the reader stop in the midst of reading and ponder the meaning of a word or phrase. This you never want as an author. A rule of thumb – always give your work a little percolatin’ time before you come back to it. Never write right up to deadline. Return to it with fresh eyes. You’ll spot those overworked tangles of prose and know exactly how to fix them.
Compound sentences, most modifying clauses and many phrases *require* commas. You may find it necessary to break the rules from time to time, but you can’t delete commas just because you don’t like the pause they bring to a sentence or just because you want to add tension.“Bob ran up the stairs and looking down he realized his shoelace was untied but he couldn’t stop because they were after him so he decided to get to the roof where he’d retie it.” This is what happens when an author believes that omitting commas can make the narrative sound breathless and racy. Instead it sounds the reverse – it’s heavy and garbled.The Graham Greene quote above is dying for commas, which I’ll insert here: “Her face had the ivory tinge of atabrine; her hair, which had once been the color of bottled honey, was dark and stringy with sweat.” This makes the sentence accessible to the reader, an image one needs to slow down and absorb.Entire books have been written about punctuation. Get one. “The Chicago Manual of Style” shows why punctuation is necessary in specific instances. If you don’t know what the rules are for, your writing will show it.The point to the List above is that even the best writers make these mistakes, but you can’t afford to. The way manuscripts are thrown into the Rejection pile on the basis of early mistakes is a crime. Don’t be a victim.
LOVE. THIS. Thank you, Count My Stars…
Originally posted on Count My Stars:
By now I’m sure nearly everyone in the writing world has read or heard about the Slate piece on how adults should be embarrassed/ashamed to read Young Adult literature. (I’m not going to link to it, because I refuse to give them the clicks.) I couldn’t possibly have missed it – when I checked Twitter on Thursday morning, my timeline was a seething mass of fury. And I… well, went off implies a brief explosion. This took place over the course of nearly three hours, prompting what I consider one of my top five greatest honors of my entire internet history:
And, you know what? It was. When I get up a good head of steam on some righteous anger, it looks a little like this:
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Listen to Science Fiction from the 1950s radio program Dimension X, courtesy of openculture.com. Bradbury, Asimov, and Vonnegut, among others, are featured. Enjoy!
From Brian Wasko’s Write at Home blog. Cool site to check out for tips and inspiration.
I struggle with first draft perfectionism. How do you keep yourself from stressing over your first drafts?