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.

 

 

10 Tips for Proofreading Effectively

Mark Twain knew full well how hard it is to proofread effectively. As he said in a letter to Walter Bessant in February 1898:

“You think you are reading proof, whereas you are merely reading your own mind; your statement of the thing is full of holes & vacancies but you don’t know it, because you are filling them from your mind as you go along. Sometimes—but not often enough—the printer’s proof-reader saves you—& offends you—with this cold sign in the margin: (?) and you search the passage & find that the insulter is right-—it doesn’t say what you thought it did: the gas-fixtures are there, but you didn’t light the jets.”

No matter how carefully we examine a text, it seems there’s always one more little blunder waiting to be discovered. You can minimize the possibility of errors by employing the following tips.

There’s no foolproof formula for perfect proofreading every time. As Twain realized, it’s just too tempting to see what we meant to write rather than the words that actually appear on the page or screen. But these 10 tips should help you see (or hear) your errors before anybody else does.

1. Give it a rest. If time allows, set your text aside for a few days after you’ve finished writing, and then proofread it with fresh eyes. Rather than remembering what you meant to write, you’re more likely to see what you’ve actually written.

2. Look for one type of problem at a time. Read through your text several times, concentrating first on sentence structures, then word choice, then spelling, and finally punctuation. As the saying goes, if you look for trouble, you’re bound to find it.

3. Double-check facts, figures, and proper names. In addition to reviewing for correct spelling and usage, make sure that all the information in your text is accurate.

4. Review a hard copy. Print your text and review it line by line: rereading your work in a different format may help you catch errors that you previously missed.

5. Read your text aloud. Ask a friend or colleague to read it aloud. You may hear a problem (a faulty verb ending, for example, or a missing word) that you haven’t been able to see.

6. Use a spellchecker. The spellchecker can help you catch repeated words, reversed letters, and many other common slipups, but it’s certainly not goof-proof.

7. Trust your dictionary. Your spellchecker can tell you only if a word is a word, not if it’s the right word. For instance, if you’re not sure whether sand is in a desert or a dessert, visit the dictionary or a glossary of commonly confused words.

8. Read your text backward. Another way to catch spelling errors is to read backward, from right to left, starting with the last word in your text. Doing this will help you focus on individual words rather than sentences.

9. Create your own proofreading checklist. Keep a list of the types of mistakes you commonly make, and then refer to that list each time you proofread.

10. Ask for help. Invite others to proofread your text after you have reviewed it. A new set of eyes may immediately spot errors that you’ve overlooked.

Paul Thayer
ThayerLiterary 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 of the English language and the craft of fiction to help writers improve their work, offering them critiques and line editing.

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How to write an action scene

TODAY  I offer you a guest post by Fred Johnson (@fredbobjohn), an editor at Standout Books.

For new writers, throwing in a few combat scenes can seem like an easy way to add some excitement to a novel, but the reality is that violence can be incredibly difficult to pull off effectively. There are many pitfalls writers will fall into when writing about violence, so I want to talk about what they are and how you can avoid them. In their places, I’ve offered up two main alternative methods that I think work for ninety percent of combat scenes.

Violence: The Detailed Method

If you’re writing a fight or battle scene in genre fiction, detailed description will be the way to go nine times out of ten. This is because a fight scene of any scale and duration is likely to involve two or more people tied up in an incredibly fast-paced and complex process. Detailed description serves to guide the reader through the confusion and helps your readers suspend their disbelief. Some of the worst combat scenes I’ve ever edited have said something along the lines of:

Bob disarmed the guard and killed the seven men behind him.

What? How did he do that? He’s only guy against eight assailants. Did he snap his fingers and they all dropped dead?

Don’t be like the author of Bob’s brief fight—you need to make your readers believe it’s possible that your James Bond-esque hero shot his way through two hundred trained henchmen, despite what their brains are telling them.

Combat must be shown, not told. It needs to be specific, and it needs to be rooted in concrete actions. This is doubly true if it’s a case of an underdog protagonist surmounting impossible numbers. After all, for the reader to stay immersed in your story, they need to be able to believe the story’s events. If those events are too preposterous, that’s it—you’ve lost your readers.

Take, for example, this scene from fantasy writer David Gemmell’s White Wolf:

When the death blow came it was so sudden that many in the crowd missed it. Agasarsis lunged. Skilgannon met the attack, blocking the lunge and rolling his blade round the saber of Agasarsis. The two men leapt back. Blood suddenly gushed from Agasarsis’s severed jugular. The champion tried to steady himself, but his legs gave way, and he fell to his knees before his killer. Servaj realized that, even as he parried, Skilgannon had flicked the point of his saber across the throat of his opponent. Agasarsis pitched face forward to the earth.

Every movement and detail is picked apart here, slowed down, and recounted by a third-party spectator. The result is a climactic and vivid end to an important encounter.

For the same reason, action movies favor slow-motion effects and sharp editing. The complex and unlikely actions presented need to be slowed down and examined to be believed. Imagine if, in The Matrix, Neo and Trinity simply arrived to rescue Morpheus and told him, “Oh, yes, we killed those fifty guardsmen downstairs. No sweat.” No, we need to see this action to believe it. This is much the same for novels.

Violence: The Implicit Method

The alternative method for writing good violent action only works in certain situations, such as in literary fiction and detective novels. The method operates around what is left unsaid. Consider Myrtle’s death in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s enormously popular novel The Great Gatsby:

A moment later she rushed out into the dusk, waving her hands and shouting—before he could move from his door the business was over. The “death car” as the newspapers called it, didn’t stop; it came out of the gathering darkness, wavered tragically for a moment, and then disappeared around the next bend.

The precise moment of Myrtle’s death isn’t depicted. Here. We don’t see the impact or hear the scream, and yet we know with terrible certainty that Myrtle is dead. This kind of quiet violence gains power through how understated it is. It totally relies on the power of context. When you attempt to use an implied moment of violence, your prose has to boil over. You’ll want short, punchy sentences and resonant concrete images. For example, this fight between two antagonists from a fantasy novel I edited recently:

The final blow struck Samson hard in the chest. He reeled back, his knees trembling like aspens before giving way beneath him. The hooded woman watched him fall, saw his eyes widen. Slowly, she drew the long dirk from her boot and ran her finger along its edge. “You’re in for a long night,” she said softly.

This is the equivalent of when, in a movie, the door swings closed on the man bound to the chair in the mafia den. The scene cuts off, and although we don’t see anything, we all know bad things are happening.

Reducing violent action to two alternative rules might seem rather limiting. I have, after all, suggested either spelling everything out in candid, straightforward language or giving the reader just enough so that she/he can work out what’s going to happen. It could be said that I haven’t left much room for any middle ground. Of course, great writers will always find ways to flout these guidelines, so don’t feel like you have to limit yourself. Writing is an art, not an exact science, and there’s always room for experimentation. That said, to break the rules, you have to first be aware of them.

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 of the English language and the craft of fiction to help writers improve their work, offering them critiques and line editing.

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Why can’t literary agents get excited about my novel?

HERE’S a Q&A from one of my clients:

Q. Literary agents are telling me that they liked my writing but that they just didn’t “get excited about” my novel. What should I do?

A. If Max Perkins, the famous Scribners editor, had submitted his final draft of Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel to ten editors, probably at least one of them would’ve said the same thing. You’re going through the same tortures of the damned that all writers experience. Part of this painful process is dealing with human beings in what is ultimately a subjective game of likes and dislikes. Some gentleman prefer blondes; some like redheads. Most of the critics disliked The Great Gatsby, for example, and its initial sales were disappointing. John Grisham’s first novel was declined by 15 publishers and 30 literary agents

When confronted with a new book manuscript, everyone in the literary marketplace is forced to answer the same question: Can I sell this book? Literary agent: Can I sell this to one of several editors I know? Editor: Can I sell this to my editorial board? Editorial board: Can we sell this to the public? Obviously, this is a tougher question to answer in some cases than others, and all too often it’s a real crapshoot, as any publisher will tell you.

Does your novel need more work? Yes, I’m sure it does. Many novels are rewritten over and over again. The version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover that we read today is the third all-new draft. Amy Tan sweated through more than 20 rewrites of what eventually became The Joy Luck Club. Unless you want to shelve your novel, considering it just practice, an exercise in acquiring your chops, and a valuable learning experience (as many new writers see their first or even first few novel manuscripts), and go on to something else, then I’d say that you have to make the best of what you’ve got, run with it, and see what happens. Maybe the story or the plot or the characters aren’t as strong as others you could invent, but if you feel generally positive about your novel, then spruce it up as best you can (with professional editorial help, if possible) and submit it to literary agents (follow their submission guidelines carefully). That’s the moment of truth, and that’s what every writer has to do. That’s what Steven King did with his first novel—and his second and third and fourth, until Doubleday finally accepted number five (Carrie).

My advice: Don’t rush any part of the process—the planning of your novel, the writing, the rewriting, the learning, the self-editing, the query letter, the market research, and the development of marketing materials, especially social media. With persistence and some good fortune, you’ll find an agent who will get excited about your book.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fumblerules of Writing

Much of this humorous list was originally compiled by George L. Trigg, et al.

1. Make sure each pronoun agrees with their antecedent.

2. Just between you and I, the case of pronouns is important.

3. Watch out for irregular verbs that have crope into English.

4. Verbs has to agree in number with their subjects.

5. Don’t use no double negatives.

6. And don’t start a sentence with a conjunction.

7. The passive voice is to be ignored.

8. Never use a big word when substituting a diminutive one would suffice.

9. Kill all exclamation points!!!

10. Use words correctly, irregardless of how others use them.

11. Prepositions are not words to end sentences with.

12. Being bad grammar, a writer should not use dangling modifiers.

13. Join clauses good like a conjunction should.

14. A writer must not shift your point of view.

15. About sentence fragments.

16. One-word sentences? Eliminate.

17. Don’t use run-on sentences you have to punctuate them.

18. In letters essays and reports use commas to separate items in a series.

19. Don’t use commas, that are not necessary.

20. Also, always avoid annoying alliteration.

21. Go around the barn at high noon to avoid colloquialisms.

22. Parenthetical words however should be enclosed in commas. Also, parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are (usually) unnecessary.

23. Its important to use apostrophes right in everybodys writing.

24. If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times: Resist hyperbole; not one writer in a million can use it correctly. Exaggeration is a billion times worse than understatement.

25. Understatement is always the absolute best way to put forth earth-shaking ideas.

26. Avoid ampersands & abbreviations, etc.

27. Who needs rhetorical questions?

28. Avoid “buzz-words.” Such integrated transitional scenarios complicate simplistic matters.

29. One should NEVER generalize.

30. Be more or less specific.

31. Puns are for children, not groan readers.

32. Proofread carefully to see if you any words out.

33. Foreign words and phrases are not apropos.

34. Analogies in writing are like feathers on a snake.

35. Eliminate quotations. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.”

36. In the case of a report, check to see that, jargonwise, it’s A-OK.

37. As far as incomplete constructions, they are wrong.

38. About repetition, the repetition of a word might be real effective repetition—take, for instance the repetition of the name Abraham Lincoln.

39. Also too, never, ever use repetitive redundancies.

40. In my opinion, I think that an author when he is writing should definitely not get into the habit of making use of too many unnecessary words that he does not really need in order to put his message across.

41. Use parallel construction not only to be concise but also clarify.

42. It behooves us all to avoid archaic expressions.

43. Mixed metaphors are a pain in the neck and ought to be weeded out. Even if a mixed metaphor sings, it should be derailed.

44. Consult the dictionery to avoid mispelings.

45. To ignorantly split an infinitive is a practice to religiously avoid.

46. Avoid clichés like the plague. (They’re old hat.)

47. Eschew obfuscation!

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.

 

 

How long should a scene be?

One of my clients asked me this question. This may seem like a dumb question, but it’s worth discussing so as to help writers who are new to the game. Short answer: The god of fiction has not prescribed the length of a scene. A scene should be as long as it needs to be in order to accomplish its goal. Each scene should be planned before the writing begins. The plan must begin with establishing its purpose. The scene should incorporate at least one of these purposes:
• Move the main plot line ahead
• Present necessary information
• Introduce or develop characters
• Create atmosphere or develop setting
• Introduce or worsen a problem
• Solve a problem
• Set up a later scene.
In addition, you must answer the following questions before you begin writing a scene:
• Who will be the viewpoint character?
• What other characters will be in this scene?
• Where will this scene take place?
• When will it take place?
• What is the primary action that will occur in the scene?
• What will generate conflict?
When you have determined the purpose of the scene, answered the questions above, and fulfilled its purpose, the scene will find its natural length.

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.

Four basic sentence structures you should know

THE English language uses four basic sentence structures:

1. Simple sentence — a sentence with just one independent clause (also called a main clause): I purchased a tour guide and a travel journal at the bookstore.

2. Compound sentence — A compound sentence contains at least two independent clauses: I purchased a tour guide and a travel journal, but the bookstore was out of maps.

3. Complex sentence — A complex sentence contains an independent clause and at least one dependent clause: Because I was planning to visit Tokyo, I purchased a tour guide and a travel journal. The dependent clause is underlined.

4. Compound-complex sentence  — A compound-complex sentence contains two or more independent clauses and at least one dependent clause: While Mary waited, I purchased a tour guide and a travel journal at the bookstore, and then the two of us went to dinner. The dependent clause is underlined.

DEFINITIONS

Sentence: The largest independent unit of grammar. It begins with a capital letter and ends with a period, question mark, or exclamation point. The sentence is traditionally defined as a word or group of words that expresses a complete idea and that includes a subject and a verb.

Predicate: the part of a sentence or clause containing a verb and stating something about the subject (e.g., went home in John went home).

Independent clause: An independent clause is a group of words made up of a subject and a predicate. Unlike a dependent clause, an independent clause is grammatically complete—that is, it can stand alone as a sentence. An independent clause is also known as a main clause or a superordinate clause. Two or more independent clauses can be joined with a coordinating conjunction (such as and or but) to form a compound sentence.

Dependent clause: A dependent clause is a group of words that has both a subject and a verb but (unlike an independent clause) cannot stand alone as a sentence. Example: Whenever I get the urge to exercise, I lie down until the urge passes. The dependent clauses are underlined.

Conjunction: a word used to connect clauses or sentences or to coordinate words in the same clause (e.g., and, but, if). The coordinating conjunctions in English are and, but, for, nor, or, so, yet. Example: I once loved photography, but I lost interest in it.

Coordinating conjunction: A coordinating conjunction is a conjunction (such as and) that joins two similarly constructed and/or syntactically equal words, phrases, or clauses within a sentence.

Varying sentence structure improves writing. That’s why knowing the four basic sentence structures is important. I talked about sentence variety in my August 10, 2017, post.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
http://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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