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.

 

 

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.

Did you like this post? If so, please click Like and share it.

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.

Did you like this post? If so, please click Like and share it.

 

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.

Did you like this post? If so, please click Like and share it.