Category Archives: style

Dealing with ‘seemed’ and other tentative language in fiction – by Louise Harnby…

This column from Louise Harnby, via Chris the Story Reading Ape, tackles the recurring problem of how to convey information about multiple characters in a scene without breaking point of view. It’s certainly a problem I struggle with. These are good reminders that there are better ways than “seemed” or “appeared to” to get across what that non-pov character might be up to. Check it out!

Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog

If your characters seem or appear to be doing or feeling something – probably, maybe, perhaps – then you might be using half measures to express a good chunk of that action or emotion.

Uncertainty can drag a story down.

Here’s how to edit for it at line level.

Continue reading HERE

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A Manifesto for Overwriters!

Overgrown planet!

No one knows better than I do the anguish of being an inveterate overwriter. Here are some of the ways my penchant manifests itself:

  • Stacking up adjectives, sometimes without any particular point other than the love of words. One example at random from my Failed Novel: “By the time he pulled out once more onto 41, the Tamiami Trail, the sun had turned dusty red behind him, piecing out of the sky faint, ominously pendant, pink-tinted blooms of cloud.”
  • Piling up metaphors and images until I end up with a bean soup of ingredients that don’t always play well together and end up siphoning reader attention away from characters and into the quagmire of the language itself. . . . Need I say more?
  • Hunting obsessively in thesaurus.com for THE PERFECT WORD so as to avoid settling for what Mark Twain would have called “the lightning bug”—but ending up with a choice (often a verb) that is so far out there that writing groups suggest gently that I probably ought to settle for something a little less . . . well, I’m having to go to thesaurus.com to find THIS right word. “Arresting”? No, that’s not right. Disruptive? Intrusive, contentious, militant. . . . You get the point.
  • Diving into long passages of introspection in which I explore the character’s relation to life, the universe, and everything from so many directions readers probably feel as if they’re inside a disco ball.

What a dangerous way to write! Here are some of the sad consequences of this indulgence:

  • Too much verbiage, even the brilliant kind I am so clearly expert at, slows the story pace. Readers emerge from even a page or two exhausted, just wanting to move on—or quit.
  • Too many details, descriptions, and distractions dilute important moments in a scene so that what should be on display gets lost in the window dressing. Scenes should have a structure that builds to the crucial turn, but overwriting drags out scenes so that every event, line of dialogue, metaphor, or action carries equal weight.
  • The words themselves start demanding the focus that should go to the characters and their interactions.
  • The backstory in introspection loses its force when not linked to the characters’ actual experiences in time. If we’re told in a long, over-filled expository paragraph on page 10, among seventy or so other details, that a character had a traumatic experience at age seven, by the time we see that trauma play out on page 100, we’ve forgotten its source. We don’t know about that trauma from being told it exists, but from seeing in the moment what it does.

I’ve seen writing group members defend some pretty egregious excess by insisting that what they’re writing is “literary,” a form in which the language itself becomes the focus rather than the “plot.” I guess there was a time when I retreated behind this rationale myself. But I’ve come to apply terms like “lazy” and “self-indulgent” to pile-it-up-on-the-page writing these days. I confess I’ve arrived at this judgment after seeing how some colleagues’ drafts exhaust me when they do all the things I tend to do.

So the moral here must be “Don’t Overwrite.” Followed by “10 Steps to Avoid Overwriting.” Right?

Umm, not quite.

Instead, I’m going to claim that, in its proper place, your tendency to do all the things I listed above (and more?) is a strength!

So: X Reasons to Love Your Curse.

Actually, there’s one real reason you should value your overwriting impulses: unlike your more verbally impoverished colleagues, you overwriters generate a lot of text! You never have to sit and try to “come up with” an image or a detail. You’ve already poured out a grand effusion of writerly stuff.

This means:

Experimentation! You know you’ll cut four-fifths of what you generate. So you can let the words wander. See where they lead. Mixed metaphor? No problem. It’ll get put to rights—or in its place—in the final cut.

Choice! Somewhere among all those words and sentences and images, there’s one that really produces that scintillating “this is it!” shiver. You just have to clear away the litter that keeps it from doing its job. And don’t throw out all the efforts that didn’t answer this particular need. They aren’t necessarily substandard or failed. They may work perfectly in the scene you’re writing next.

And although all that introspection may not work for your harried readers, it’s your way into your characters. You end up knowing them intimately, as you must if you and your readers are to willingly share their worlds for 99,000 words.

Same with world-building. Too many details? Even if you cut that street-by-street description, you still live in those alleyways and cul-de-sacs in your mind.

And who knows? Maybe you, more than your verbally limited colleagues, actually will one day produce a literary masterpiece. After all, it’s from the piling up of words, images, sentences, that the “voice” that commonly defines “literary” emerges.

The key, of course, is to actually do the CUTTING that converts your curse to a strength. I know how hard it is to hack out those lovely lines that flowed from that sacred font. I’ve found that I finally have to be told, indisputably, that X words have to go. Then it actually starts to become fun to watch how paragraphs firm up, cohere, how fast the lines race by and how hard they slice.

One painful but potentially useful exercise: take a particularly long, detail-and-event laden chapter, and vow to reduce it by one-half. Can’t do it? Try for one-third. Just to see what you get.

(Hmmm. Maybe I should do that with this post. . . . :D)

Do you have strategies that make your overwriting indulgences work for you?

 

 

 

 

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Show, Don’t Tell = Use Body Language

Some useful thoughts here about those little diction-level fits our writing can give us. I do suggest that we don’t go crazy about issues like this. It’s not worth torquing a sentence into an unreadable mess just to avoid “was.” But I am with Dan 100% on “look.”

Dan Alatorre

img_2351-19

This lesson is invaluable, so read carefully.

Wait, does invaluable mean no value or lots of value? Quick internet search… Okay.

Yeah, there’s gold in today’s lesson.

BODY LANGUAGE = GOOD

CRUTCH WORDS = BAD

Also, a way to find and deal with your crutch words. Didn’t know you had those? You do.

Tag, your manuscript is it!

First, let’s discuss dialogue tags: those little phrases that follow a section of dialogue.

“Run,” he said.

“Why?” she asked.

“There’s a T-Rex coming!” He exclaimed.

“Oh,” she said warily.

Okay?

One of my favorite things to do is to wait until a new author writes  “Why?” she asked and then I say, “Lose the tag, we know she asked – the question mark gave it away.”

It’s fun for…

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A.P. Says We Are Now Free To Boldy Go!

Cartoon policeman blocking social media posts

Caution: Grammar Police!

Still on my “grammar rules” kick, but this is pure glee.

The 2019 American Copy Editors Society Conference!

As reported in The New Yorker. See what you now can and cannot do!

#amediting, folks!

 

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You Probably Don’t Fear Adverbs as Much as You Think You Do.

Every now and then, I just can’t resist a rant about hyper-devotion to “rules.” The many lists of THINGS YOU MAY NOT DO and surprising admonitions from writing-group colleagues (Eeek! A sentence that ends with a preposition!) remind me that such hyper-devotion thrives.

My topic today is adverbs. We’ve all been scolded about our adverbs, especially those frightful -ly words. I’ve been sensitized to the point that those two letters set sirens blaring in my writerly mind—even as here when the -ly word is not an adverb. The spirit of Stephen King will haunt you. Strunk and White will be over to flog you this afternoon.

Like all writing rules, this one should be applied judiciously. (Or should I say “with judicious attention?” Whatever for?) The slightest perusal of some excellent fiction reminds us that even the cursed -ly words have a place. For example, here’s a short passage from Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Goldfinch. Theo is describing horseplay he and his close friend Boris indulge in:

I knew people would think the wrong thing if they knew, I didn’t want anyone to find out and I knew Boris didn’t either, but all the same he seemed so completely untroubled by it that I was fairly sure it was just a laugh, nothing to take too seriously or get worked up about. And yet, more than once, I had wondered if I should step up my nerve and say something: draw some kind of line, make things clear, just to make absolutely sure he didn’t have the wrong idea. (pages 300-301)

I could say a lot about this excerpt, not just about its use of -ly adverbs but also about how blithely it runs afoul of all sorts of rules. But here I want to note one quality that the passage owes to its adverbs: how natural, how human, how conversational, it sounds. The expressions sinfully adulterated by -ly adverbs are examples of the way people actually talk.

Yes, you could take out three of the four and lose very little. But these are common expressions by which we normally, instinctively, express exactly what Theo is grappling with. The emphasis added by “absolutely” and its counterpoint, the qualification inserted by “fairly,” lace in Theo’s discomfort, his lack of confidence in his own judgment. We’re all often “fairly sure” about some things, we all often want to be “absolutely sure” about others. The nuances differentiating those attitudes, so common in our everyday handling of our emotions, are the “very little” we lose.

The value of what’s lost by a too-pious fear of adverbs comes through even more vividly in a delightful short article I recently summarized for my other blog, College Composition Weekly. In this blog, I report on scholarship about teaching college writing from major journals in the field. My latest entry was Peter Wayne Moe’s “Inhabiting Ordinary Sentences” from the journal Composition Studies.

Moe, who teaches at Seattle Pacific University, urges writing teachers to look beyond the gems produced by the “greats” to value the day-to-day work that unremarkable sentences do and to recognize how even first-year college writers naturally and skillfully use the tools such everyday language supplies. The article explores how choice of subject, insertion of parenthetical asides, the use of “and” and “but” all convey how the writer “places” ideas in relation to each other. His short section on adverbs I found particularly rich.

He deals only peripherally with the -ly words, focusing instead on the kinds of adverbs that disguise themselves. Adverbs, he notes, are the stuff of context. They are the scene-setters, the clarifiers, the words that position the content in the nexus from which meaning derives. He provides a striking illustration of the work that adverbs do.

Here’s a student sentence. The student is writing about classroom activities following the 2016 election:

Often times we talk about race, gender and identity and my professor is always willing to share her opinions on these issues. After the election, she firmly expressed her political views to our class.

Setting aside views on whether this teacher should have expressed her views, firmly or otherwise, here’s what Moe does that speaks to a writer’s craft: “These sentences could be pared of their adverbs and prepositional phrases [all of these prepositions are adverbial] and would remain grammatically sound—”

We talk and my professor is willing to share her opinions. She expressed her political views.

When we strip these adverbial elements, including “firmly,” Moe writes, “everything is lost. The sentences are decontextualized, devoid of urgency, devoid of relevance, devoid of exigency” (page 88). And I would suggest that in the subtle context that the adverbial components supply, we can see a hint of how the student feels about her teacher’s actions, a hint missing from the denuded lines.

I suppose if this student were John Updike, she could have come up with a single, forceful verb that would do the work of “always willing to share,” including the delicate emphasis embedded in that “always,” and we would applaud her, call her the next Updike. But I love Moe’s attention in this article to how we all speak and write everyday and how much work that ordinary writing can do if we use all the resources it provides.

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The Em Dash— #amwriting

I often turn to Connie J. Jasperson for good common sense about writing, in this case an issue that looks as if it ought to be simple, yet plagues many of us. I also note the use of an em dash to indicate interrupted dialogue–another use that can be overdone! (em dash intended). Thanks, Connie!

Life in the Realm of Fantasy

Over the years, I have seen many books written by wonderful authors who overuse em or en dashes.

I also tend to do that in blogging and in Facebook posts, and my first drafts can be peppered with them. Em dashes are a kind of author’s crutch because it is easy to rely on them.

Trust me, readers find it distracting to see an em dash in every paragraph. Some editors don’t want to see one on every page. Their point of view is that the em dash is like any other repetitive word in a manuscript. As a tool, it’s useful as a way to emphasize certain ideas, and can also be used to good effect in the place of a semicolon. In my opinion, the em dash should be used sparingly to be most effective.

So, what is the difference between the hyphen and the em dash? Aren’t…

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A Tool for the Bravehearted: 350 Dialogue Tags!

Derek Haines at Just Publishing Advice says you CAN use dialogue tags besides “said.” I’d personally be really careful, and for goodness sakes, be sparing. But this is a great list to have in your toolkit. Let me know what you think!

concept of reading and learning

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