Writing: The Usual Suspects

Since starting Thayer Literary Services, a book editing business, in 1997 and after reading what seems like a gazillion first novels, I have seen the same mistakes over and over again. After a while I started calling them “the usual suspects.” I have considered collecting them into a book, but I thought that seeing so many of them all in one place would drive me to drink.

So I decided to create this blog as a way to discuss grammar and punctuation problems one at a time, along with many other writing issues, all of which I think will be helpful to budding writers. Follow this blog, and I’m sure you will find some information that will help you become a better writer.

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.

 

 

Fiction tips: 5 writing habits to avoid

All writers strew less-than-perfect turns of phrase in their first draft—unnecessary words and phrases that slow down the writing. Here are five stylistic flaws that can be eliminated in revision.

1. Unnecessary prepositional phrases

EXAMPLE: After all my hard work, the superintendent’s compliment was gratifying to me. BETTER: After all my hard work, the superintendent’s compliment was gratifying. The “to me” can be inferred by the reader.

2. Adverbs that are weak substitutes for a vivid verb
EXAMPLE: The stranger walked threateningly toward us
BETTER: The stranger stalked toward us.
Steven King said, “The adverb is not your friend.” Replace them with an evocative verb as much as possible. Examples:
walked slowly = ambled, strolled, sauntered
ran = bolted, raced (and many more)
spoke softly = whispered
spoke loudly = shouted

3. Stalling phrases such as tried to, seemed to, began to, started to

EXAMPLE:

The sun’s reflection seemed to glisten and waver on the water.

BETTER: The sun’s reflection glistened and wavered on the water.

EXAMPLE: I took a detour down two short flights of stone stairs and started looking for the Last Chance Saloon.

BETTER: I took a detour down two short flights of stone stairs and looked for the Last Chance Saloon.

In most cases, these expressions merely stall the narrative.

4. Meaningless just

EXAMPLE: He just climbed to the top and fell asleep.

BETTER: He climbed to the top and fell asleep.

EXAMPLE: She just wished the rain would stop.

BETTER: She wished the rain would stop.

When the adverb just conveys the meaning at that moment or means “merely,” it has a function:

I had just opened the letter when the phone rang.

I have just enough flour to make this recipe.

When just adds neither of these meanings, leave it out.

5. It was as a sentence opener

EXAMPLE: It was the comment about the dog that enabled the detective to solve the case. BETTER: The comment about the dog enabled the detective to solve the case.

EXAMPLE: It was her lack of skill with small talk that held her back.

BETTER: Lack of skill with small talk held her back.

Replacing the vague sentence opener It was with a noun strengthens a sentence.

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.

 

 

Fiction writing tips: Description of the setting

Always keep in mind that setting is intimately and dynamically involved with both characters and plot. The setting can change, the way the characters view the setting can change, and the setting can influence the plot. Action may be the most important element of fiction, but no novel is fully realized without some description.

Here’s an excellent example from Gaylord Dold’s mystery novel Samedi’s Knapsack:

“Roberts walked down the ramp and stood on the hot tarmac, breathing diesel fumes. He was sweating heavily and his shirt was soaked through to the skin. The sky was like a fiery kiln of clay glaze, smelling of sulfur and charcoal smoke. He looked at the low airport complex, sets of concrete buildings with tin roofs, a long hedge of cactus separating the runways from miles of confused, jumbled slums. In the west, high brown mountains rose into crabbed valleys and wrinkled ridges, then a slash of green. All around him the Haitian passengers were lugging their packages and bundles toward a tin customs shed located at the far end of a concrete building with several broken windows and an air conditioner leaking water.” \

You should include only the most significant details in a passage of description, as Dold has done. You don’t want an exhaustive catalog of images. That will turn your reader into a clerk taking inventory. Readers won’t do that job for long. Instead of mentioning every item in a room—or every detail of a character and his clothing—choose perhaps three or four vivid and specific details that make the room or that person unique. The reader and the writer are involved in a creative partnership. The writer uses a broad brush, and the reader fills in the blanks. As a writer, you must trust the reader to do so.

What do I mean by “the most significant details”? Let’s say that you and your spouse go to have dinner at the home of new friends. If you had to write about this experience and describe their home, what would you choose to mention? That they had a couch and a recliner and a big flat-screen TV in the living room? You could do that, although such things aren’t very interesting or revealing. But what if you saw a big glass display case in the living room that was filled with World War II weapons and memorabilia, or beautifully bound copies of the complete works of Shakespeare on a bookshelf, or a liquor cabinet crammed with every alcoholic beverage known to mankind, or a scatter of NASCAR magazines on the coffee table, or a wall filled with arty black-and-white photos of nude women? Things like that are much more informative, aren’t they? That’s what I mean by significant—and that’s what you want to include in description.

When you’re writing description, remember that you want your readers to inhabit your POV (point of view) character, so you must do that yourself in order to write vivid description. To do that you need to get out of your own brain and see everything through the eyes of your VPC (viewpoint character).

Tip #1: Do this exercise: Drive around urban, suburban, and rural areas and stop at places you’ve never seen before. Note what catches your attention first, then what other things stand out. Also notice any obvious smells and sounds.

Tip #2: Placing your VPC in the midst of some activity allows you to integrate description into the action so it is less invasive and more an organic part of the whole. One of the best ways to work in the description of a setting is to move your main character through it. That’s why the Mississippi River was such an effective device in Huckleberry Finn.

Tip #3: Don’t forget about the weather. In some stories the weather is so integral to the story that it goes beyond a mood-setting device to being like another character. Think of the movie Blade Runner, where it’s always dark and rainy.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
paulthayerbookeditor


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.

Grammatical terms walk into a bar

A dangling participle walked into a bar. Enjoying a cocktail and chatting with the bartender, the evening passed pleasantly.

A bar was walked into by the passive voice.

An oxymoron walked into a bar, and the silence was deafening.

Two quotation marks walk into a “bar.”

A malapropism walked into a bar, looking for all intensive purposes like a wolf in cheap clothing, muttering epitaphs, and casting dispersions on his magnificent other, who takes him for granite.

Hyperbole totally rips into this insane bar and absolutely destroys everything.

A question mark walked into a bar?

A non sequitur walked into a bar. In a strong wind, even turkeys can fly.

Papyrus and Comic Sans walked into a bar. The bartender says, Get out! We don’t serve your type.

A mixed metaphor walked into a bar, seeing the handwriting on the wall but hoping to nip it in the bud.

A comma splice walked into a bar, it has a drink and then leaves.

Three intransitive verbs walked into a bar. They sit. They converse. They depart.

A synonym strolls into a tavern.

At the end of the day, a cliché walked into a bar, fresh as a daisy, cute as a button, and sharp as a tack.

A run-on sentence walked into a bar it starts flirting with a cute little sentence fragment.

Falling slowly, softly falling, the chiasmus collapsed onto the bar floor.

A figure of speech literally walked into a bar and ended up getting figuratively hammered.

An allusion walked into a bar, despite the fact that alcohol was its Achilles heel.

The past, present, and future walked into a bar. It was tense.

A dyslexic walked into a bra.

A verb walked into a bar, sees a beautiful noun, and suggests they conjugate. The noun declines.

An Oxford comma walked into a bar, where it spent the evening watching the television, getting drunk and smoking cigars.

A simile walked into a bar, as parched as a desert.

A gerund and an infinitive walked into a bar, drinking to forget.

A hyphenated word and a non-hyphenated word walked into a bar, and the bartender nearly choked on the irony.

If you don’t see the humor in some of these sentences, take two aspirin and call me in the morning.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
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.

 

 

The horror of compound words

NINETY percent of all spelling problems, they say, concern compound words. Should it be selfseeking or self-seeking? Is the word spelled taxpayer, tax-payer, or tax payer? In other words, is the compound closed, hyphenated, or open? Who knows? Not many of us. That’s why we all need a good unabridged dictionary and The Chicago Manual of Style. Here are a couple of compound words problems I’ve found in the manuscripts I’ve edited:

Many words that end with -like are written as one word, such as trancelike. Words using the suffix -like are generally closed unless they end with l or ll (sail-like, ball-like), contain three or more syllables (basilica-like), are compound words (vacuum-bottle-like), or are proper nouns or other words that are difficult to read (Whitman-like). One exception, though, is Christlike. Also beware of words that begin with co-. Such compounds are usually written as one word, as in coworker. In addition, no hyphen is needed when you combine an adverb with another word. An adverb modifies verbs, adjectives, other adverbs, and even complete sentences. The hyphen should be removed from a term such as heavily-guarded (The heavily guarded building . . .).

Here’s a handy guide that will help you with compound words: http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/16/images/ch07_tab01.pdf

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
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.

Fiction writing: Theme

THE THEME of a work of fiction is an idea that is central to a story—a message that the writer wants to communicate to readers. A story may have more than one theme. Along with plot, character, setting, and action, theme is one of the main components of fiction. A theme can often be summed in a single word (e.g. love, death, betrayal). The theme reflects the author’s worldview, which is developed by showing what a main character does, says, thinks, and experiences in response to particular circumstances wherein he/she is involved in a deepening conflict. Every story must be driven by a conflict of some kind.

Some of the most common types of conflict are person vs. person, person vs. self, person vs. society, person vs. nature, person vs. fate, and person vs. technology. Many others are used.

Themes often explore historically common or cross-culturally recognizable ideas such as ethical questions that are usually implied rather than stated explicitly. An example is whether one should live a seemingly better life at the price of giving up parts of one’s humanity, which is the theme in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

You will find a wide variety of themes in literature including:
• Alienation – The effects of, the loneliness of, ways to cure it.
• Ambition – getting what you want, stunted by, thwarted.
• Betrayal – the pain of, in love and friendship.
• Coming of age – loss of innocence.
• Courage – courage to deal with conflict, lack of, developing, conquering with.
• Deception – how to deceive, results of.
• Discovery – what does it take to discover new places, inner meaning, strength, even treasure.
• Escape – from life, routine, prison, family pressures.
• Death – how to escape, facing, what happens after, consequences of.
• Fear – driven by, dealing with, conquering.
• Freedom – loss of, gaining, handling, fight for.
• Good versus evil – survival of one despite the other, triumph of one over the other.
• Isolation – physical and emotional.
• Jealousy – trouble caused by, denial of, driven by.
• Justice – the fight for, injustice, truth versus justice.
• Loss – of life, innocence, love, friends, to avoid.
• Loneliness – no man is an island, or hell is other people.
• Love – love fades, is blind, can overcome all obstacles, lust for power, for sex. • Power – the search for, the loss of, what we are willing to exchange for.
• Prejudice – racism, bigotry, snobbery, dealing with.
• Security – the loss of, the finding of the need for, how we act when security is shattered.
• Spirituality and God – the struggle to find faith, live without faith, etc.

Here are a few examples of themes:

Moby Dick
Complex and elusive themes about existence, morality, and the nature of reality.
Of Mice and Men
Loneliness
The Great Gatsby
The decline of the American Dream in the 1920s
The Catcher in the Rye
Coming-of-age struggle
To Kill a Mockingbird
Judgment, all people have the capacity for good and evil, and coming-of-age struggle
Lord of the Flies and Jurassic Park
Survival and good and evil
Gone with the Wind
Survival, initiative, perseverance, overcoming adversity with willpower
For Whom the Bell Tolls
Moral and ethical beliefs during war, loss of innocence, the value of human life, romantic love as salvation
The Odyssey, The Three Musketeers, and The Hobbit
Heroism
Harry Potter books and Lord of the Rings
Good and evil, power, and corruption
Romeo and Juliet, Wuthering Heights, and The Notebook
Love and loss
Hamlet, Macbeth, The Count of Monte Cristo and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest
Revenge
1984
Power and manipulation
Atonement (movie)
Atonement
Animal Farm and Macbeth
Absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Any mystery novel
Deception

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
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.

Fiction writing: What’s the Rush?

MOST of us who are, shall we say, “older” folks grouse about the shortcomings of the younger generation, one accusation being that they demand instant gratification. I think that is the pot calling the kettle black. We all harbor that sin. No better example can be found than writers who have completed their first book. Once they consider their book “finished,” they start chomping at the bit to get their baby “out there.” Many writers saddle themselves with a self-imposed deadline in order to make that happen. Why? Isn’t there enough stress in life already?

Don’t allow your excitement and your impatience to get your book published before it’s ready for prime time. No matter how many times you’ve gone back through your manuscript and how many other people read it, what you have written is a first draft. As such, it should be professionally edited and rewritten at least once. If you don’t do this, you are setting yourself up for a heavy dose of disappointment and embarrassment when readers trash your work with one- and two-star reviews.

Hemingway said, “The first draft of anything is shit.” He claims to have rewritten A Farewell to Arms “at least fifty times.” Amy Tan labored through more than twenty rewrites of what eventually became The Joy Luck Club. Abraham Lincoln is said to have revised the Gettysburg Address at least five times before he thought it was ready to be shared.

You must try with all your might to delay gratification. Don’t rush the editorial process. Be patient. Be professional. You’ve devoted considerable time and effort to your book. Rushing the process will almost always prove harmful in the long run.

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.

Beware of Commonly Misstated Phrases

Try to find all the misused words and expressions in this humorous piece of writing.

DON’T embarrass yourself by saying or writing commonly misused idioms such as the following ones. The incorrect phrase is stated first, followed by the correct one:

For all intensive purposes — For all intents and purposes

Statue of limitations — Statute of limitations

I could care less — I couldn’t care less

Jive with — Jibe with

Scotch free — Scot free

Hunger pains — Hunger pangs

Beckon call — Beck and call

Butt naked — Buck naked

Mute point — Moot point

Case and point — Case in point

The spitting image — The spit and image

On tender hooks — On tenterhooks

Hone in — Home in

One in the same — One and the same

Deep-seeded — Deep seated

By in large — By and large

Nip it in the butt — Nip it in the bud

You’ve got another thing coming — You’ve got another think coming

Extract revenge — Exact revenge

It’s a doggy-dog world — It’s a dog-eat-dog world.

Two peas in a pot — Two peas in a pod.

Right off the back — Right off the bat.

Peaked my interest — Piqued my interest

Wet your appetite — Whet your appetite

Piece of mind — Peace of mind

Wreck havoc — Wreak havoc

Tow the line — Toe the line

Pour over — Pore over

Tongue and cheek — Tongue in cheek

Nerve-wrecking — Nerve-wracking or nerve-racking

Escape goat — Scapegoat

Beckon call — Beck and call

After all is set and done — After all is said and done

Upmost desire — Utmost desire

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
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.