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




Writing tips: Sentence variety

WRITERS often fall into the habit of building all their sentences the same way: subject, verb, object; subject, verb, object, with independent clauses strung together with the conjunction and. This kind of repetition quickly becomes boring. Here are some ways to combine ideas in a sentence:

• Use a series to combine three or more similar ideas: The unexpected tornado struck the small town, causing much damage, numerous injuries, and several deaths.
• Use a relative pronoun (who, whose, that, which) to introduce the subordinate (less important) ideas: The tornado, which was completely unexpected, swept through the small town, causing much damage, numerous injuries, and several deaths.
• Use an introductory phrase or clause for the less important ideas: Because the tornado was completely unexpected, it caused a great deal of damage, numerous injuries, and several deaths.
• Use a participial phrase (a phrase that includes a verb ending with –ing or –ed) at the beginning or end of a sentence: The tornado swept through the small town without warning, leaving behind a trail of death and destruction.
• Use a semicolon (with a conjunctive adverb such as however when appropriate): The tornado swept through the small town without warning; as a result, it caused a great deal of damage, numerous injuries, and several deaths.
• Repeat a key word or phrase to emphasize an idea: The tornado left a permanent scar on the small town, a scar of destruction, injury, and death.
• Use an em-dash to set off a key word(s) or phrase at the beginning or end of the sentence: The tornado that unexpectedly struck the small town left behind a grim calling card—death and destruction.
• Use a correlative conjunction (either, or, not only, but also): The tornado not only inflicted much property damage, but also much human suffering.
• Use a colon to emphasize an important idea: The destruction caused by the tornado was unusually high for one reason: it came without warning.
• Use an appositive (a word or phrase that renames) to emphasize an idea: A single incident—a tornado that came without warning—changed the face of the small town forever.

In addition, get a book about composition. One good one is called The Art of Styling Sentences: 20 Patterns for Success (Third Edition) by Waddell, et al. Remember that prose has a rhythm just like poetry. Even small changes make a difference to the reader. Pick up any book, fiction or nonfiction, and read one page at random. You should find (emphasis on should) a page full of sentences written in a variety of ways. One of the best ways to find that rhythm, that pleasing flow of words, in your own writing and to make sure you’re not repeating the same sentence structure over and over is to read your manuscript out loud. When the words are vocalized, they sound different from what you hear in your head as you are writing.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services


Fiction tips: How to write a sex scene

SEX scenes are notoriously difficult to write well. Even celebrated authors struggle to describe this basic, essential human behavior in ways that are actually sexy. Too often their best attempts still fall into the realm of the too cheesy, too flowery, too technical, too cold, or too . . . well, icky. Poorly written sex scenes in novels are so common that the Literary Review (U.K.) has an annual competition to award the worst sex scenes in literature. Here’s one winner:

“I slide my hands down his back, all along his spine, rutted with bone like mud ridges in a dry field, to the audacious swell below. His finger is inside me, his thumb circling, and I spill like grain from a bucket. He is panting, still running his race. I laugh at the incongruous size of him, sticking to his stomach and escaping from the springing hair below. All the while, we stifle our noise and whisper like a church congregation during the sermon. He pinches my lips when I yelp, I shove my fingers in his mouth when he opens it to howl. ‘Anne,’ he says, stopping and looking down at me. I am pinned like wet washing with his peg. ‘Till now, I thought the sweetest sound I could ever hear was cows chewing grass. But this is better.” He sways and we listen to the soft suck at the exact place we meet. Then I move and put all thoughts of livestock out of his head.”

Arrrgh! This guy needs to get off the farm more often.

William F. Buckley called lovemaking episodes the “O.S.S.”—the Obligatory Sex Scene. Of course scenes that include sexual acts aren’t obligatory at all, but many writers include them nevertheless. You must decide whether such intimate activity should be shown to the reader (and how much you should show) or skipped altogether. Having two of your story people make love is a natural occurrence, and it could be a wonderful part of your reader’s experience. One can argue that a reader wants to escape the drabness of the world in a novel, where lovemaking is always perfect. But nowadays even romance novels shy away from anything perfect, including sex. Readers today are too sophisticated to believe in perfect sex, even as a fantasy. It’s better to create a sex life for your characters that seems real.

Sex scenes can help develop characters

On the plus side, sex scenes can give the writer an opportunity to deepen the characterization of someone or create a change in one or both participants or in their relationship. Such character-driven couplings serve a better purpose than trying to stimulate the libido. If the sex scene doesn’t reveal more about the characters involved, and hence have some importance for character development and for the plot, either remove it or rewrite it so that it that does. If the rest of your story is written well, you won’t lose information by leaving out the scene. Remember that you can always refer obliquely to the lovemaking or have one of your characters think about it afterward.

My view on this subject is that less is more and that a writer can be explicit without being clinical—without sacrificing passion for physical details. I think a sex scene can be rendered effectively if the writer keeps the five senses in mind and strives for the sensual, the tactile, and the passionate, all of which target the heart. That’s what a writer should always do, because emotions are much more significant to a reader than ideas—or the graphic description of sexual gymnastics. If a writer can do no more than offer a standard-issue play-by-play of physical actions that are familiar to readers, then I’d rather see the writer stop short and go to a scene break, leaving the details to the reader’s imagination. One more thing: Don’t include multiple scenes of gratuitous sex with the hope of attracting readers unless you have embraced the dubious goal of writing another Fifty Shades of Grey.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services

Fiction writing: The importance of rewriting

MOST new writers publish their novel too soon. Once they consider their book “finished,” they start chomping at the bit to get their baby “out there” by self-publishing it. These writers saddled themselves with a self-imposed deadline in order to make that happen. Jeez, isn’t there enough stress in life already?

So why do they do this? Award-winning novelist Lawrence Block got to the crux of the matter, I believe, when he said, “Too many writers don’t want to write, they want to have written.”

Have written.

Think about this. Do these writers take their work seriously enough to want to improve their craft? Or do they just want to be able to call themselves an “author” and impress their friends?

Successful novelists all agree that writing is rewriting. Hemingway said, “The first draft of anything is shit.” He also called a first draft his “junk pile,” meaning that his initial finished version of anything was the raw material through which he could sift for whatever might be good enough to keep. His junk-pile metaphor encapsulates the most painful truth that any aspiring novelist has to learn: A novel isn’t written; it’s rewritten. Hemingway said, “I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.”

D.H. Lawrence rewrote Lady Chatterley’s Lover three times. Amy Tan labored through more than twenty rewrites of what eventually became The Joy Luck Club. J.K. Rowling rewrote the opening chapter of her first book fifteen times. For one story that was 20,000 words when finished, James Thurber wrote a total of 240,000 words and fifteen different versions.

Some quotes on rewriting

“The biggest difference between a writer and a would-be writer is their attitude toward rewriting. Unwillingness to revise usually signals an amateur.” — Sol Stein

“A first draft is nothing more than raw potential; to rewrite is to take that potential and use it to create a complete story or novel, which is just as much an art form as a painting or a symphony.” — James Thurber

“Writing without revising is the literary equivalent of waltzing gaily out of the house in your underwear.” — Fantasy writer Patricia Fuller

“By the time I am nearing the end of a story, the first part will have been reread and altered and corrected at least one hundred and fifty times. I am suspicious of both facility and speed. Good writing is essentially rewriting. I am positive of this.” — Roald Dahl

“Writing and rewriting are a constant search for what it is one is saying.” — John Updike

“I have rewritten—often several times—every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.” — Vladimir Nabokov

“Writing is rewriting. Books are not written—they’re rewritten.” — Michael Crichton

Don’t allow your excitement and impatience to get your book published compel you to do so before it’s ready for prime time. No matter how many times you give your manuscript a superficial rereading and how many friends and writing group members read it, what you have written is a first draft. As such, it should be professionally edited and rewritten at least twice. 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 on Amazon. Read some of those bad reviews—the ones NOT written by friends, family members, and family pets—and you will occasionally find ones that say the book needed to be edited. I’m pretty sure that any reader who says this is not a professional editor. Mature readers can easily identify a poorly written, unedited book. Bad reviews will kill your sales.

You must try with all your might to delay gratification. Don’t rush the writing process. Be patient. You’ve devoted considerable time and effort to your book. Rushing the process will almost always prove harmful in the long run. Do you really want to “waltz out of the house in your underwear”?

If rewriting seems like too much trouble to you, ask yourself: Do I want to write, or do I want to have written?

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services

Fiction writing tips: How to write a synopsis

First of all, you need to know what not to do when you’re writing a synopsis of a novel. Unless you’re writing this overview for submission to a particular agent or acquisitions editor who has specific length requirements of his/her own, your best bet is to stick with some general guidelines.

1. Don’t make the common mistake of writing a chapter-by-chapter, blow-by-blow chronological essay about the events of your story, because then the synopsis will be too long and detailed. You want to write just enough for an agent or editor to get a feel for the type of story you have written, for the action of your story, and for its characters. They don’t want to know what happens in every chapter; they want a concise summary.

2. Don’t talk about subplots or secondary characters unless they are major secondary characters and their subplots are so closely related to your main characters that you have to mention them in order to explain the main plot.

3. Don’t include physical descriptions of your story people unless they have significant character “tags” that are important to the plot (like extraordinary strength or expertise or a deformity). If a secondary character happens to be a Mongolian dwarf with only one leg, you should mention that.

4. Don’t go into detail about setting. If you wrote a synopsis for a Jane Austen novel, for example, you could simply say, “This novel is set in a small village in Regency England.”

5. Don’t go into detail about your main character. A few quick strokes are all you need. For example you might say, “Bridget Jones, a ditzy, rather boozy twenty-something . . .”

You don’t have to give away your final plot twist, although you should make it clear that there is one. For example, you could write, “When Olivia finally catches up with Jack at the abandoned lighthouse, he tells her the real secret of his disappearance, and their final bloody reckoning ensues.” Mostly, though, a synopsis is the ultimate plot spoiler, so you should spill the beans whether you like it or not.

How concise should the synopsis be? Try to keep it to one page, single-spaced, that describes the beginning, the middle, and the end—the problem, the struggle, and the resolution. Writing a one-pager and a longer synopsis is another option. If an agent or editor asks you for a more detailed summary, then you’ll have one ready to send.

I suggest that the first thing to do is write a “logline” for your story. This is a short and informative summary of a story used by screenwriters that encapsulates the story in 20 to 30 words. It has three crucial components:

• Character

• Want

• Obstacle

An interesting character who wants something badly but is having trouble getting it.

The logline must answer these questions:

• Who is this interesting character and why is he/she interesting?

• What is the central story line that drives the story forward?

• What is the main obstacle preventing the protagonist from reaching his/her goal?

If you can’t boil down your story to a logline, then you can’t write an effective one-paragraph summary for a query letter and the first paragraph of a synopsis.

After that, beginning with the second paragraph of your synopsis, move from general concepts to the more specific elements of your story, focusing on your main characters, what they do, and what happens to them. To do that, answer these questions:

• Who is this interesting character and why is he/she interesting?

• What is the catalytic event (the action that gets the story going)?

• Why does this character want what he/she wants?

• What is the central story line that drives the story forward?

• What is the main obstacle preventing the protagonist from reaching his/her goal?

The following movie loglines will help you write one for your novel:

THE GODFATHER: The aging patriarch of an organized crime dynasty transfers control of his clandestine empire to his reluctant son.

PULP FICTION: The lives of two mob hit men, a boxer, a gangster’s wife, and a pair of diner bandits intertwine in four tales of violence and redemption.

FOREST GUMP: Forrest Gump, while not intelligent, has accidentally been present at many historic moments, but his true love, Jenny Curran, eludes him.

THE MATRIX: A computer hacker learns from mysterious rebels about the true nature of his reality and his role in the war against its controllers.

SILENCE OF THE LAMBS: A young F.B.I. cadet must confide in an incarcerated and manipulative killer to receive his help on catching another serial killer who skins his victims.

CASABLANCA: Set in unoccupied Africa during the early days of World War II: An American expatriate meets a former lover, with unforeseen complications.

REAR WINDOW: A wheelchair bound photographer spies on his neighbors from his apartment window and becomes convinced one of them has committed murder.

THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION: Two imprisoned men bond over a number of years, finding solace and eventual redemption through acts of common decency.

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL: Blacksmith Will Turner teams up with eccentric pirate “Captain” Jack Sparrow to save his love, the governor’s daughter, from Jack’s former pirate allies, who are now undead.

APOCALYPSE NOW During the U.S.-Vietnam War, Captain Willard is sent on a dangerous mission into Cambodia to assassinate a renegade colonel who has set himself up as a god among a local tribe.

THE LION KING Lion cub and future king Simba searches for his identity. His eagerness to please others and penchant for testing his boundaries sometimes gets him into trouble.

All of these loglines are under 30 words. Most are under 25 words.

MORE GUIDELINES for a synopsis

• If you submit your synopsis on paper, format it using single-spaced lines; 12-point Times New Roman font; at least one-inch margins; page numbers; and running heads with your last name and the book title. You may justify the right margin if you want to, which will give you a little more space, but remember that your goal is to use as few words as possible.

• Write in the third person, using present-tense verbs.

• Remember that you’re writing the synopsis for an agent or an editor, not a reader, so don’t withhold important information or use cliffhangers as a way to create suspense.

• Keep the writing simple, factual, and as tight as possible. Avoid using adjectives and adverbs as much as you can.

A final point to consider: You should also know what one working agent has said about synopses. In his book The First Five Pages (a book I highly recommend), Noah Lukeman says: “Agents and editors often ignore synopses and plot outlines; instead, they skip right to the actual manuscript. If the writing is good, then they’ll go back and consider the synopsis. If not, the manuscript is rejected.”

That’s straightforward enough, isn’t it? I think Mr. Lukeman speaks for many other literary agents and editors in this regard. Nevertheless, the synopsis is important enough to be included in your email query, even if it’s not nearly as important as the writing in your novel manuscript. No matter how good your plot may sound in summary form, the proof, as they say, is in the pudding.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services

Fiction writing tip: Avoid “purple prose”

Purple prose is writing that is so extravagant, ornate, hyperbolic, or flowery that it interrupts the flow of the writing and draws excessive attention to itself. Purple prose is characterized by the extensive use of adjectives, adverbs, and metaphors. The culprits of purple prose are usually modifiers that make the writing wordy, overwrought, distracting, silly and, in most cases, quite funny.

The term purple prose comes from the Roman poet Horace, who compared this style of writing to patches of purple sewn onto clothes. Purple was a sign of wealth (and pretentiousness), and so we now have the phrase to describe such writing in fiction, typically created by inexperienced writers.

In purple prose, skin is always creamy, eyelashes always glistening, heroes always brooding, and sunrises always magical. Purple prose also features an abundance of metaphors, figurative language, long sentences, and abstractions.


“Her silken, sun-kissed locks made a golden frame around her perfect heart-shaped face. Soft, ruby red lips curved up, crystalline sky blue eyes sparkled as she looked down at the brilliant, beaming emerald clasped in her long, elegant, lily-white fingers.”

“His eyes spoke eloquent volumes of walks in the rain and white beaches, cool mountain paths, and crisp forests. She felt like she was floating from one place to another faster than she dared imagine, all the while his eyes daring her to move, to let go.”

“She answered him haughtily, the smirk on her face touched by a naughty flash in her eyes that tugged at the male part of him. He noticed she sat tall and relaxed with her nubile legs twisted in lotus position. Her poise reminded him of queens of old sitting dominion over loyal followers in huge temples of worship with rich gold and crimson fabrics cradling them as followers came and dropped down to pay homage.”

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

“She lay upon her silken sheets in her ornately embellished robes of satin, her chest ascending and descending easily with every passing second, deep inside the caverns of her subconscious mind.”

“My heart is pounding, my blood singing as it courses through my body, desire pooling, unfurling . . . everywhere.” (From Fifty Shades of Grey)

Do you feel nauseous now? Me, too. Please oh please don’t write this kind of dreck.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services

English language: Funny new words

The Washington Post  once again invited readers to take any word from the dictionary, alter it by adding, subtracting, or changing one letter, and supply a new definition. Here are the winners:

1. Cashtration (n.): The act of buying a house, which renders the subject financially impotent for an indefinite period of time.

2. Ignoranus: A person who’s both stupid and an asshole.\

3. Intaxication: Euphoria at getting a tax refund, which lasts until you realize it was your money to start with.

4. Reintarnation: Coming back to life as a hillbilly.

5. Bozone (n.): The substance surrounding stupid people that stops bright ideas from penetrating. The bozone layer, unfortunately, shows little sign of breaking down in the near future.

6. Foreploy: Any misrepresentation about yourself for the purpose of getting laid.

7. Giraffiti: Vandalism spray-painted very, very high.

8. Sarchasm: The gulf between the author of sarcastic wit and the person who doesn’t get it.

9. Inoculatte: To take coffee intravenously when you are running late.

10. Osteopornosis: A degenerate disease. (This one got extra credit.)

11. Karmageddon: It’s like, when everybody is sending off all these really bad vibes, right? And then, like, the Earth explodes and it’s like, a serious bummer.

12. Decafalon (n): The grueling event of getting through the day consuming only things that are good for you.

13. Glibido: All talk and no action.

14. Dopeler Effect: The tendency of stupid ideas to seem smarter when they come at you rapidly.

15. Arachnoleptic Fit (n.): The frantic dance performed just after you’ve accidentally walked through a spider web.

16. Beelzebug (n.): Satan in the form of a mosquito, that gets into your bedroom at three in the morning and cannot be cast out.

17. Caterpallor (n.): The color you turn after finding half a worm in the fruit you’re eating.

The Washington Post has also published the winning submissions to its yearly contest, in which readers are asked to supply alternate meanings for common words. And the winners are:

1. Coffee, n. The person upon whom one coughs.

2. Flabbergasted, adj. Appalled by discovering how much weight one has gained.

3. Abdicate, v. To give up all hope of ever having a flat stomach.

4. Esplanade, v. To attempt an explanation while drunk.

5. Willy-nilly, adj. Impotent.

6. Negligent, adj. Absent mindedly answering the door when wearing only a nightgown.

7. Lymph, v. To walk with a lisp.

8. Gargoyle, n. Olive-flavored mouthwash.

9. Flatulence, n. Emergency vehicle that picks up someone who has been run over by a steamroller.

10. Balderdash, n. A rapidly receding hairline.

11. Testicle, n. A humorous question on an exam.

12. Rectitude, n. The formal, dignified bearing adopted by proctologists.

13. Pokemon, n. A Rastafarian proctologist.

14. Oyster, n. A person who sprinkles his conversation with Yiddishisms.

15. Frisbeetarianism, n. The belief that, after death, the soul flies up onto the roof and gets stuck there.

16. Circumvent, n. An opening in the front of boxer shorts worn by Jewish men.

I hope you enjoyed those as much as I did.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services

Writing tip: the passive voice of verbs

VERBS have two “voices”: the active voice and the passive voice. With an active verb, the subject of the sentence is doing something. With a passivefiction-reveals-truths verb, something is being done to the subject of the sentence.

Don’t confuse voice with tense. Tense concerns the time of the action; voice pertains to the way a verb functions relative to the subject of the sentence. In the active voice, the subject and verb relationship is straightforward: the subject is a be-er or a do-er, and the verb moves the sentence along. In the passive voice, the subject of the sentence is neither a do-er nor a be-er, but is acted upon by some other agent or by something unnamed. Example:

The ball was thrown by Johnny.

The subject of this sentence is the noun ball. Something is being done to the subject of the sentence, so it is written in the passive voice. To change the sentence to the active voice, write:

Johnny threw the ball.

Examples of the active and passive voices:

Jewelry is often stolen by burglars. [passive]

Burglars often steal jewelry. [active]

Passive forms often use the verb was:

Oxygen was discovered in 1774 by Joseph Priestly. [passive]

Joseph Priestly discovered oxygen in 1774. [active]

In the examples above, the subject of the sentence—burglars and Joseph Priestly—are not the doers of the action.


You don’t have to change every passive construction to an active one. For instance, various stock locutions such as The project was abandoned and The Romans were defeated are perfectly acceptable.

Also, the passive voice is useful when the doer of the action is unknown or unimportant:

The lock was broken sometime after four o’clock. [Who broke the lock is unknown]

In 1899, a peace conference was held at The Hague. [This sentence comes from an essay by E.B. White. In this case, the doers of the action—the holders of the conference—are unimportant to White’s point.]

In every other case, do as Stephen King flatly says in his book On Writing: “You should avoid the passive voice” (emphasis his), noting that it is one of his pet peeves. You will find the same advice in The Elements of Style by Strunk and White and in John Gardner’s book The Art of Fiction.

Don’t be passive-aggressive. Use the active voice.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services