Tag Archives: Writing strategies

Grammar Rules: Split Infinitives | Writing Forward

Here’s my take on this article:

I agree with this post: what to do with infinitives is a judgment call. Some observations:
In the 18th century, pundits thought English needed to be more like Latin, a “more mature” language. You can’t split an infinitive in Latin (nor in Romance languages like French or Spanish–such languages have one-word infinitives). But since English needed to emulate Latin, its two-word infinitive needed to be treated like a Latin one-word infinitive. So there. Obviously English is a very different language from Latin–it’s not a Romance language at all, it’s Germanic–so following a rule meant for a Romance language doesn’t make sense.
Second, one reason “to boldly go” sounds so good is that placing “boldly” within the infinitive creates an iambic phrase: ././ Iambic is the “natural” meter for English; it’s Shakespeare’s meter, for example. It just plain has a ring.
So place your adverbs wherever you think they create that ring. (And don’t eschew adverbs universally, either. They have important roles in prose.)



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Fantasy vs. Magical Realism

Here’s a useful article on a meaningful distinction. I’ve started pitching my work in progress, The Drowned Man, as magical realism. It certainly isn’t fantasy. Yet I’m not so sure it meets this definition either. What’s your definition of magical realism? Share your favorite examples!


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The Adverb Problem and Why Authors Should Care

Here’s an article about an old controversy: to adverb or not to adverb. My thoughts on this issue:

I agree with one of the comments in the original post that a blanket ban on adverbs is unworkable. In the sentence “After I had breakfast, I went to the store” (okay, it’s not literature), the first dependent clause, “After I had breakfast,” is an adverbial clause. Anything that fleshes out where, when, why, or how may well be adverbial. To ban adverbs completely would be to impoverish a piece of writing beyond recognition. Does “completely” in that sentence add anything? It does add emphasis. Whether it should be cut is a judgment call.
I do agree that it’s better to find the precise verb that does the work rather than to tack an adverb onto a weak verb. Sometimes that can be tricky, though. “He closed the door firmly” conveys an intentionality that ‘He closed the door” does not. “He slammed the door” won’t work. “He jerked the door shut” might work to replace “firmly.” It can take a long time for the word that works best to float up (and “best” is an adverb in that sentence). Finding the word that Mark Twain compared to lightning rather than the lightning bug should always be the goal, IMHO.

What’s your take on adverbs—the “ly” kind and its sometimes (adverb) invisible brethren?

A Writer's Path


by Gary Smailes


In this article I will set out to explain why so many famous authors (Stephen King being perhaps the most vocal) warn other authors against the use of adverbs. In fact, King’s hatred of adverbs is so intense that he’s been quoted as saying, “Adverbs are evil.” You will discover the role of adverbs in fiction writing, and I’ll demonstrate why removing adverbs from your writing will make your book more enjoyable to read. In short, I’ll explain just why adverbs are evil.

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#amwriting: point of view

Connie does a terrific job of explaining POV here. True, very, very skilled writers can “head-hop”—Larry McMurtry does it all through the Lonesome Dove books—but for most of us, suddenly slipping from one POV to another without the kind of warning Connie suggests is jarring. I’ll add that one of the easiest mistakes to make is for a POV character, whether third- or first-person, to “see” him- or herself. For example, if we want to stay true to the character’s point of view, we can’t say about a POV character, “I gave an enticing smile.” The character can give a smile that “I hoped was enticing,” or “I meant to be enticing,” but only a viewer (another character) can tell if the smile actually was “enticing.” These slips can be subtle but disorienting.
Read Connie’s piece for a good review of this important issue!

Life in the Realm of Fantasy

Xpogo_RioA young author recently asked me, “What is head-hopping and why has my writing group accused me of doing it?” Headhopping occurs when an author switches point-of-view characters within a single scene, and happens most frequently when using a Third-Person Omniscient narrative, in which the thoughts of every character are open to the reader.

It’s difficult to know whose opinions are most important when all your characters are speaking in your head as you are writing. They clamor and speak over the top of each other, making a din like my family at any holiday dinner. But you must force them to take turns speaking, and make a real break between the scenes where the speaker changes, or each rapid shift of perspective will throw the reader out of the story. But what is Point of View other than the thoughts of one or two characters?

Point of view is a common…

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10 Cliches in Mystery Novels

As a mystery writer, I love the analysis in this list! My favorites:

No. 2) Isn’t it great when the police are conveniently so stupid that the detective can look smart with very little effort? That dates at least to Arthur Conan Doyle (remember Lestrade?), but it’s a long way from the truth. Rachel is absolutely right that police work can be a difficult and thankless task.

No. 3) Follows from No. 2, as Rachel points out. The detective is the only one with the basic common sense to detect foul play.

What am I guilty of? Well, My Failed Novel had a depressed detective hero. Never again. I plead guilty to inserting some attractive female characters in my first two books, now online. I hope these women are just a little bit nuanced so that they’re not total clichés.

What would I add?

  • The info dump at the end where the hero lines all the characters up and exhibits his or her brilliance by explaining the whole case, which he or she was the only one smart enough to unravel.
  • That, and books where people just tell the detective what he or she needs to know rather than allowing the detective to work for his or her discoveries.
  • And finally, detectives who don’t share things they’ve learned. Of course they’re smarter than everybody else if they’re keeping secrets!

    What would you add?

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Everything you want to know about Google Docs. I plan to learn more about this platform, and this post will be a go-to source!

Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog

Extract from an article by E.A. Deverell (Eva) founder of the Lady Writers League:

I’ve been learning so many new Google Docs features as I work on THE STORY CHALLENGE, that I felt I had to document them and share them with my fellow writers!

I’ve created a detailed workflow which you can download at the end of this post and use as the basis of your own experimentation.

I think you’ll still be surprised by some of GD’s secret features.

You can now watch the workshop below!

Hopefully it’ll help to see the features rather than just read about them.

To read the full (long and detailed with lots of related useful links), click on the link or image below:

Google Documents for Writers


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What is “Literary” Fiction? Donald Maass has a definition!

This post at Writer Unboxed is among the best discussions of the distinction between “literary” and “commercial” that I’ve seen. Donald Maass’s comparison between excerpts from two books, one “commercial,” one “literary,” makes the difference visible. This discussion ties in well with my own attempts to define “voice” and effective “world building.” Let me know what you think! Building a World in Fiction

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8 Common Creative Writing Mistakes | Writing Forward

I’ve responded to this post with the thoughts and comments below. Share your own additions!

I agree on these issues! It’s amazing how many cuts I can find when I know I have to. And the result is almost always an improvement.

I especially have to catch redundancy. It’s a good tool for drafting, since you can try out six different ways of capturing a setting or an emotion. But then come back and pick the best one of the six!
A few points:

  • Additional “filler” (or “filter”) words are “**She heard** the wind whistling through the trees” vs. “The wind whistled through the trees,” and “**She saw,**” which works similarly. These are so hard to catch.
  • RE spell-check: Instead of turning off spell-check, turn off “autocorrect” functions. You will be notified of typos, but the computer will not try to guess what you really intended. I’ve seen some pretty crazy computer-supplied corrections!
  • Also, grammar-checkers are notoriously poor substitutes for your own knowledge. The one on my Word program misidentifies fragments and rails against all kinds of style choices that work beautifully to establish voice.
  • Finally, do give “older” books a chance, even if you know that these days, you don’t dare write in an older style. The Victorians, for example, lived in a slower age, but they wrote some of the most gripping fiction you’ll ever read.

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Survey Question-Why do you put that book down?

I’ve been writing about this issue quite a bit on this blog, mostly because I’ve been disappointed by a number of the books I’ve picked up recently. My own concern is whether I’m being too curmudgeonly, since the books I can’t make it through often seem to have many fans. Here, I posted about the value of voice for smoothing over glitches that would otherwise stop me. And here, just recently, about a plot device in mysteries and thrillers that made me quit in the final chapters.

Others include what I call “illogic“: people who just don’t act like normal people or events that couldn’t happen because the author needs characters to behave bizarrely or the world to reorganize itself to make the plot work out. Hate that!

And not too long ago I stopped reading a book where everybody was so terminally nice that even when conflict reared its leonine head, everybody smiled and and gave it a gentle hug.

Finally, when I read a scene I could have written myself based on the hundred+ times I’ve already seen that exact scene or read that dialogue (e.g., “I want to be there for you”), I have a hard time pressing on.

Am I being too persnickety? I’m eternally grateful for books that surprise me, even if only just a little, with a view of the world I couldn’t get anywhere else.

Jog on over to the original post and add your thoughts, or share them  here.

Lit World Interviews

Here is the first of our LWI Survey Questions. Never a list, just the one. Yes, I know there are two but the second is clarifying the first. The results will be shared, minus names provided.

Make sure to share this post around through social media and reblogging.

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Mystery Plot Slow Reveals: A Cranky Follow-Up


men silhouette in the fog

A post I shared earlier thoughtfully spells out ways to use unreliable narrators to build suspense in mysteries and thrillers by letting readers edge slowly into characters’ personalities and the dilemmas their personalities create for them, so that the journey through the story is one of ongoing discovery. Mulling this post, I found myself lamenting a plot device that in some ways is the antithesis of this slow reveal and, sadly, one I’ve recently encountered more than once.

emoticon face

Cranky Part: I HATE this plot structure.


Mea Culpa Part 1: I tried it once. Got shot down royally by my wonderful St. Martin’s editor.

Mea Culpa Part 2: Yeah, sometimes a little of this strategy sneaks by; sometimes a modicum of it is even necessary to tie up ends in a denouement.

But! In my curmudgeonly view, we should all be highly self-conscious about the degree to which we’re tempted to fall back on this device.

So what is this cardinal plotting sin?

Here’s how it worked in the latest iteration I came across:

Step 1: The heroine/protagonist/amateur sleuth roves around, earnestly enough, learning basically nothing—generally ruling out unlikely suspects.

Okay, I’ll go along. My interest flagged somewhat because throughout her inquiries, the protagonist/sleuth seemed to have nothing personally at stake except satisfying her suspicion that the relevant death had not been adequately explained. Still, I’ll go along. When a character dies in mysterious circumstances, the protagonist really ought to express and act on his or her doubts. In the history of mystery fiction, idle curiosity has uncovered and solved many a crime.

Step 2: Suddenly the identity of the villain is revealed.

In this plot structure, this revelation usually occurs when the protagonist/sleuth is in the company of the villain, inevitably far from help. In the worst iterations, it occurs without warning: “Now I’ve got you, my pretty! How nice that you didn’t suspect!” In the book on which I’m basing this analysis, the protagonist/amateur sleuth abruptly identifies the killer (but without letting us readers know what clued her in)—

At which point, all of a sudden, she realizes that her bumbling inquiries might inspire the bad guy to come after her. And voilà, within mere minutes after she realizes she’s in danger, he shows up. Before I could contain my frustration at being deprived of the basic piece of information that would have allowed me to share her revelation, he has her bound and gagged and completely at his mercy.

Now comes the worst part:

Step 3: For pages and pages, the murderer lectures his captive audience—

That is, his victim(s)—on what happened, why, how he did it, what clues they missed—in short, all the things that the best detective/mystery fiction stack up slowly so that when the final piece settles into place, the protagonist and the readers have done some work, the kind of work that makes both the journey and its resolution an achievement, intellectual but emotional as well.

Night driving on an asphalt road towards the headlights

Yes, many mysteries turn on a sudden realization, a moment in which the detective/sleuth chains together a string of loose clues or recognizes the importance of some minor incident or discovery. The best of these revelations, in my view, are the ones where the sleuth deduces the connection, à la Sherlock Holmes, instead of having the information told to him or her.

But the success of this turning point, regardless of how the sleuth arrives at it, depends on the quality of the groundwork we’ve laid. In other words, if our villain has to explain the case to our hero, we haven’t done our job. In the best mysteries, when the villain pops up, as he or she probably will, the reader and the sleuth, in concert, should be able to exclaim, without pages of tedious instruction, “Now it all makes sense!”

In the kind of slow reveal Jane K. Cleland discusses in “Writing Suspenseful Fiction: Reveal Answers Slowly,” we readers get the information as the protagonist encounters it. We’re not deprived of the building blocks that the protagonist will ultimately use to solve the crime. The beauty of using an unreliable narrator for this process, as Cleland illustrates, is that the information is filtered through the character’s misreading. As we slowly come to understand the character and the emotional or cognitive needs that drive him or her, we have the chance to read through to a coherent solution ourselves.

Mysterious park alley

But even without an unreliable narrator, we mystery writers owe it to our characters as well as our readers to take a hard look at that lecture we’re tempted to let the villain deliver and, instead, piece out the information so that we can lay it before our hero and our readers step by step, obviously with alluring wrong turns along the way. Revelations ought to come from within, not from some obnoxious bad guy pointing a gun at our readers’ bound and gagged and silenced bodies. The slow reveal of character and information gives readers voice. They become our partners, our eager allies, in solving the crime.

Magic book

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