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.

 

 

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.

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

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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.

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