Fiction writing: Finding the right word

Mark Twain said, “Use the right word, not its second cousin.” He also said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

I couldn’t agree more. When I line edit a manuscript, I typically change many words to ones I think are better ones. The author can accept or reject these changes. I hope they will accept them or find one that’s even better—the quintessentially right word. After I’ve made quite a few of these changes, I suspect that the writer used the first word that came to mind. Nothing wrong with doing that in a first draft if the words flowed from a writer’s figurative pen in a rush of creativity. But the writer must, must, must slowly and carefully review and revise that first draft. One thing to look for is words that could be stronger and more precise in their meaning. Most words have a number of synonyms. Use a thesaurus and consider each of those synonyms to see which one most closely communicates what you want to say.

Tip: When you review your writing, look for only one thing at a time, not for everything that could be improved. You could look for weak and/or imprecise words in your first review.

Tip #2: Many of the words I change are anemic action verbs. For instance, instead of writing “Susan walked across the room,” you could say, “Susan flounced across the room.” Remember the old adage “Show, don’t tell”? Weak verbs such as walked only tell what Susan did. A word like flounced shows what she did.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
www.paulthayerbookeditor.com


Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

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Grammar: Using the correct mood of verbs

Verbs have three “moods”—indicative, subjunctive, and imperative. The most common is the indicative mood. You are using the indicative mood when you make a simple statement:

I know the window was shut. (indicative mood)

Where the indicative mood tells, the imperative commands, and the subjunctive wishes or speculates:

Shut the window. (imperative mood)

I wish the window were shut. (subjunctive mood)

Mood indicates how the writer thinks about a subject. If you wish something were true or speculate about what might happen (subjunctive mood) or give a command (imperative mood), you let the reader know this by changing the form of the verb or by the omission of certain words

Consider this embarrassing situation: A husband comes home unexpectedly and sees a man fleeing out his back door. He rushes into the bedroom and accuses his wife of cheating on him, and she responds:

“So what if my lover were here?” (subjunctive)

By using the subjunctive mood, she is not confessing; she’s inviting her husband to consider a hypothetical question.

But the situation is quite different if she says:

“So what if my lover was here?”

Now she is indeed confessing and wants to know what her husband intends to do about that fact.

The changing of was to were is the signal for the mood involved—the subjunctive mood.

Look at the subjunctive in another sentence:

The captain ordered that the sails be hoisted and the anchor be weighed.

You might expect the imperative since the captain is giving an order, but—since the desired condition of the sails and anchor are not yet fact—you use the subjunctive.

Once the order has been carried out, you could use the indicative mood to express the situation:

The captain saw that the sails were hoisted and the anchor was weighed.

Compare that to the imperative mood, used to give a command or to direct someone in the performance of a task. Note that the imperative mood is created by removing the implied subject, which in English is always you. ”

(You) Hoist the sails! (You) Weigh anchor!” yelled the captain.

Now we are hearing the captain give the actual order—in contrast to the first sentence, where we are merely reporting what the order was. This distinction is quite important when you write dialogue and quotes. It differentiates between the summarizing or paraphrasing of speech and the speech itself.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
www.paulthayerbookeditor.com


Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

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Fiction writing: Using indirect or summary dialogue

You don’t want to miss any opportunities to present dialogue. Sometimes, though, you should not present dialogue directly; instead, you should present it indirectly, meaning that it should be summarized, a.k.a., paraphrased. For example, two people meet and say something like this:

“Hi, Bob. How are you doing today?”
“I’m fine, John. How are you?”
“I’m good, thanks. How are your wife and kids?”
“They’re doing great. How about yours?”

Dialogue like this is unnecessary as well as boring. Don’t include everyday chitchat. You must get right to the point for having a conversation—to the real reason why the people are talking. Dialogue has been called “conversation’s greatest hits.” This means you should include only the most meaningful words and ideas, just as you give readers only the most significant physical details in a scene. When you use only meaningful dialogue, it helps to advance the story and develop characterization. You could summarize insignificant dialogue or, better yet, don’t include it at all.

Neither should you use dialogue where one person tells another one information that the reader already knows. That’s when you should summarize that information and say something like this:

He told her how he had discovered Johnson’s body that morning and what he had found in his apartment.

Furthermore, in order to save space—remember, economy is one hallmark of good writing—and to keep things moving, summarize dialogue of secondary importance yet important enough to communicate useful info or create images, or both, that help enlarge the story in some way. Example:

So Virgil never got to go ashore. One of the midshipmen who did, delivering messages to the consulate, said the city was full of beggars and Spanish soldiers; he said people walked in the middle of the street, rode horses holding umbrellas over their head, and the women wore so much white face powder they looked like they were dead. Virgil said he’d like to see them anyway. The midshipman said don’t step in the gutters; some places there was poop in the gutters. He said hey, he bet that’s why everybody walked in the middle of the street. — Elmore Leonard, Cuba Libre

Summary dialogue like this delivers info and imagery to readers quickly.

As you review your text, consider each section of dialogue carefully, asking yourself, Do these words need to be spoken aloud, or should I rewrite this part as indirect dialogue?

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
www.paulthayerbookeditor.com


Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

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Fiction writing tip: Beware of writing “began to” and “started to”

I find sentences like the following one in most novels written by novice writers.
She started to run across the street.

Writers should avoid saying that someone “began” or “started” to do something or that something began or started to happen. People either do something or they don’t, and an event either occurs or it doesn’t. In the example sentence you should write, “She ran across the street.”

You wouldn’t say, “The bomb started to explode,” would you? I certainly hope not. You’d say, “The bomb exploded.”

The only time you can use began to or started to is when something interrupts the action, as in these sentences:

Jack began to stand, but the man shoved him back down into the chair.

Jill started to take off her shoes, then saw a spider on her shoelace.

In these examples, using began to or started to is okay because an action starts but is not completed.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
www.paulthayerbookeditor.com


Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

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Writing dialogue: Don’t use goofy words to replace “said”

One of my clients asked me this question:
Q. Using the word said after a line of dialogue all the time seems boring. Why can’t I use more descriptive verbs?
A. Using attribution verbs like gasped, laughed, spat, croaked, rasped, barked, and even (oh God please no) ejaculated and many others of their ilk is unnecessary and redolent of the work of amateurs and writers of pulp fiction. Speakers don’t gasp or spit or laugh a line, they say it.

Stephen King agrees, calling the use of these words “shooting the attribution verb full of steroids” (On Writing). He admits to committing that sin in the past, but declares now that “the best form of dialogue attribution is said.” Dean Koontz declares that he never uses any attribution but said, although he may have done so in the early days, as King did. Other writers and teachers, including Elmore Leonard, have also sung the praises of the simple word said.

One of Leonard’s ten rules of writing is “Never use a verb other than said to carry dialogue.” He says: “The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated” and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.”

You can use some attribution verbs other than said as long as they aren’t of the steroid-injected kind. For instance, you can use words such as shouted, cried, called, whispered, murmured, mumbled, and a few others occasionally. If writers go beyond that by using goofy steroid words or verbs followed by adverbs, they’re intruding in the story by explaining too much. As King says, (On Writing) if your context is constructed correctly, “when you use he said, the reader will know how he said it—fast or slowly, happily or sadly.”

So don’t write something like this: “Go to hell!,” he said angrily. Don’t add the adverb angrily. Anyone who says that is obviously pissed off.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
www.paulthayerbookeditor.com


Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

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Punctuation: Using the semicolon

When you place a semicolon in a sentence, remember that you must have an independent clause both before and after the semicolon and that the ideas expressed in both main clauses should be closely related. Example:

I like you; you’re nice.

Also remember that the semicolon is always used before a conjunctive adverb that introduces a second independent clause. Example:

Her arguments sounded convincing; therefore, the majority voted for her.

The word therefore is a conjunctive adverb. Note that a comma always follows the conjunctive adverb. Conjunctive adverbs include accordingly, also, anyhow, as a result, besides, consequently, furthermore, henceforth, however, indeed, instead, likewise, meanwhile, moreover, nevertheless, otherwise, then, thus, and therefore.

Most book editors agree that the use of semicolons should be kept to a minimum in fiction. I wouldn’t use them at all in dialogue. The University of Chicago Manual of Style, the bible of the publishing industry, says, “Semicolons tend to be frowned upon in fiction. An editor who doesn’t allow them at all is overly rigid, however, since they are sometimes useful and even necessary.”

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
www.paulthayerbookeditor.com


Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

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Beware the run-on sentence

Any native English speaker who writes a run-on sentence is either (1) someone who was raised by wolves, (2) a tadpole in disguise, (3) a Scientologist, (4) a communist, or (5) an exiled member of an alien species. So beware. If you are any of these things, you don’t want your family to know about it.

A run-on sentence, also known as a fused sentence or a run-together sentence, contains two or more independent clauses not connected by the correct punctuation or conjunction. (An independent clause has a subject and a verb, expresses a complete thought, and can stand alone.) Example of a run-on sentence:

Kelly likes to cook she makes something different every day.

This sentence contains two independent clauses. It expresses two ideas:
1. Kelly likes to cook
2. she makes something different every day

Writers can fix a run-on sentence in three ways:
• Put a period between the two independent clauses: Kelly likes to cook. She makes something different every day.
• Put a semicolon between the two independent clauses: Kelly likes to cook; she makes something different every day.
• Put a conjunction between the two independent clauses: Kelly likes to cook, and she makes something different every day.

Any editor who finds more than ten run-on sentences in a manuscript will either self-implode or quit the profession and become an insurance agent. So please, give me a break. I don’t want either of those horrible things to happen to me.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
www.paulthayerbookeditor.com


Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

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