Writers: Be Bold!

When writing, it’s important to be decisive. Passive storytelling, passive events, passive motivations, passive characters, passive verbs, all lead to a story without risk or conviction, full of missed opportunities.

Get rid of the unnecessary qualifying words (quite, a bit, a little, some, somewhat, I guess) and non-specific words (someone, everything, huge, handsome, very, really). Such words detract from the authority and decisiveness of your writing.

Too many flashbacks rob a story of drive, give it a sense of aimlessness. So does a lack of focus. Thank heaven for rewrites! The grieving woman in my NaNoWriMo story keeps reflecting on the past, which makes sense, because for her there doesn’t seem to be much of a future. Still, it does seem aimless since she’s thinking instead of doing something. When I rewrite it, I’m going to take away the aimlessness by having the story revolve around a theme to give it focus.

The worst offense for indecisive writing is backing off from a major scene, skipping it entirely, or doing it in flashback. Many new writers don’t feel they are capable of writing dynamic action scenes, so they skim past it and hope readers won’t notice. Or they have a character other than the hero commit the final act, such a man showing up at the end to rescue the heroine in women-in-peril novels. This isn’t as common as it once was, which is good. If the woman is the hero, she needs to put herself on the line during the final scene and not expect someone else to do it for her.

In More Deaths Than One, it might seem as if I passed the buck — the solution to the mystery of Bob’s identity came in a letter rather than his doing the work himself — but the point of the scene was for him to interact with the waitress, not interact with the villain. I wanted to show her emotion on his behalf, show his reaction to her as together they learn the truth. It was the immediacy of their reaction that I needed. How a character feels, reacts, or emotes, is every bit as important as what a character does.

It’s important to trust yourself as a writer. Trust that you will be able to recognize the truth of your scene and what you want to accomplish (as I did with More Deaths Than One). Trust that when it comes time to rewrite and edit, you will know what you need to do to create a dynamic story, and that you will be able to do it.

Most important of all, don’t skirt around the story. Get right to the heart of the action. Be bold.

De-Was-Ing a Manuscript and Other Editing Woes

I’ve spent the past ten days de-was-ing my third manuscript. It’s quite humbling. I think I’m finally getting the hang of writing, then I take on an editing chore like that and discover I still have much to learn.

First, I never knew there was anything wrong with “was.” (See? Wases proliferate when you aren’t paying attention. And what is the plural of was? Wases or wasses?)

Second, I have a hard time finding replacements. Some wases are easy to remove — change from passive to active voice. For example, this “was” was easy to fix: The gun was aimed at the old men. I merely switched to active voice: He aimed the gun at the old men. Eureka! One sentence de-was-ed. Sounds simple? Perhaps. Unless there are a thousand wases. I’ve found as many as a dozen on a single page, though to be fair, I’ve also found a page or two without any wases.

How many wases are acceptable? There is a philosophy of writing/speaking/thinking called E-prime (for English-prime) that says all form of the verb “to be” should be abolished. Nothing exists “out there” independent of a viewer, and all things are in a state of flux. To say the apple was red eliminates the witness, and not all witnesses see the apple as red. Does a color-blind person? Does a cat? Does a bee? Also, to say the apple was red ignores the stages of growth when the apple was green (unripe) or brown (rotten). But to say the apple looked red or some such makes a person/character sound uncertain about their ability to tell the color of the apple.

I’m not going to bore you with a discussion of E-prime (though if you understand E-prime, feel free to bore me; I’d like to understand it better). I just mentioned E-prime as one of the problems of de-was-ing a manuscript. Eliminating all wases seems impossible, yet which to keep? And how do you eliminate was in a sentence such as: He was a lawyer? You can change it to: He worked as a lawyer but that makes him sound as if perhaps he wasn’t really a lawyer. And how do you say: “When I was young, I liked to ride my bike”? Perhaps: “In my youth, I liked to ride my bike.” But few people talk like that, and it makes dialogue seem stilted and unreal.

So, I gradually de-was my manuscript the best way I know how, and hope that the remaining wases don’t detract from the story.

How do you deal with your wases?
What are your editing woes?

The group No Whine, Just Champagne will be discussing was and woes during our Live Chat on Thursday, March 12th at 9:00 p.m. ET. Hope to see you there! If you can’t make it, feel free to discuss them here.

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Grammar Guide for Self-Editing

My guest host today is Paul Allen Leoncini. He is the author of the epic novel Conjuroravailable at Barnes&Noble, Bordersbooks, Ingram books and http://www.PublishAmerica.com as well as bricks and mortars book stores. Leoncini writes, Once upon a time a dear Agent offered me some advice, and this is what she said:

Grammar Guide For Self-Editing or Groups by Kelly Mortimer (2/10/08)

A – Awkward Sentence StructureRearrange, rephrase, or try deleting unnecessary words.

Aa – Additive Adjunct – No comma before “too” when it’s the last word of a sentence, and “too” means also. Ex: “She graduated from high school too.” Use a comma when “too” appears elsewhere and still means also. Ex: “She, too, graduated from high school.”

Aw- A while vs. AwhileNever follow a preposition with the word “awhile.” “Awhile” is an adverb that means “for a while.” Ex: “Stay awhile” means “Stay for a while.” A while” is a noun phrase that follows a preposition like “for” or “in.” Ex: “Stay for a while.”

B – Blond/BlondeBlond is an adjective used to describe. Ex: “She has blond hair.” Blonde is a noun. Ex: “She’s a tall blonde.” (The “e” is rarely used when referring to men.)

Bc – Because When possible delete “because” and form two sentences. Subordinate conjunctions can annoy readers if overused.

Bg – Began/Begin/StartedWhen does beginning become doing? Immediately! Ex: Correct: “He walked toward the door.” Incorrect: “He began to walk toward the door.” (There are exceptions.)

Bi – Backstory or Internal ThoughtDon’t write long paragraphs of internal thought or backstory to “info dump” every detail of a character’s past. Break it up. Change to dialogue or action whenever possible. No backstory allowed in the first chapter (at least).

Bs – Be SpecificForget it. Forget that. Forget this. Huh? Be more descriptive. Ex: Bad: “He handed it to her.” Better: “He handed her a drink.” Best: “He handed her a frosty mug of root beer.” You can use unspecific words in the second part of a sentence if the first part is specific. Ex: “She took off the necklace and put it away.”

C – Contractions Without contractions, writing is clunky. Read both sentences aloud. Ex: “I have hurt my knee and cannot exercise, but do not let that stop you.” Better: “I’ve hurt my knee and can’t exercise, but don’t let that stop you.” Exception: a character’s speech pattern.

Cd – Character DescriptionWhen a character is in their POV, they shouldn’t describe themselves. Bring out features through another character’s eyes. Ex: “Amanda grabbed her brush and tugged it through her golden brown hair.” Correct: “Amanda grabbed her brush and tugged it through her hair.”

Cl – Colors – Instead of using an ordinary color, choose a more vivid word. Ideas on last page.

Cq – Colloquialism – Using two possessives to modify one noun. Ex: Her friend’s dad’s car is old. Correct:  Her friend’s dad has an old car.

Cs – Comma in a Series – (1) Place a comma before the “and” in the last element in a series to prevent ambiguity. Ex: “I’m going to the park, the school, and the store.” (2) If the last element has a pair of words joined by “and,” the comma goes before the first “and,” but not the last. Ex: I’m going to the park, the school, and the store to buy eggs and milk.”

D – Dash – Shows interruption (in dialogue). Don’t overuse! No spaces before or after a dash.

D/t — Day / Time – Avoid starting paragraphs with the day/time. It’s telling! Exs: “The next morning…” (or) “Two hours later… ”

Dss – Delete Extra Space – One space after ending punctuation.

E – EllipsesShows hesitation, a pause, or omitted words. Don’t overuse! Spaces before and after mid-sentence ellipses. Regular punctuation for ellipses at the end of a sentence.

Ex – Exclamation PointsUse when a character shouts, or the mental equivalent! Use SPARINGLY! If not, the exclamation point loses its effect!!!!!

F – Farther vs. Further – “Farther” describes distance, literally. Ex: I can’t walk any farther. Use “Further” in a figurative sense. Ex: I don’t want to research the subject any further.

H – Hyphenate(1) Hyphenate when modifying a noun. Ex: She has a five-year-old child. (or) She has a five-year-old. (child is implied) Incorrect: Her child is five-years-old. (2) Don’t hyphenate after a “ly” word. Ex: She walked into a brightly lit room.

I – IntensifierEmphasizes the word it modifies. Use a stronger word instead of a weak one plus an intensifier. Ex: Monday turned frigid.   Incorrect: Monday turned really cold. Other Examples: very, totally, quite, extremely, severely, etc. (There are exceptions.)

Ia – It and As – Avoid starting sentences with the words “it” or “as.”

Iu – Intended UseUse words for their intended purpose. Ex: “She has pretty hair.” Incorrect: “She arrived pretty late.” (or) “She has a little dog.” Incorrect: “Her dog ate little.”

Iw – It was/wasn’t – Be specific on what “it” is, or if the sentence makes sense without, delete.

Lo – Locution – Delete phrases like “she wondered” by rephrasing into a question. Ex: She wondered why her sister always cut her hair. Correct: Why did her sister always cut her hair?

Lp- Long Paragraph – Break it up. Readers like to see some white space on a page.

Ls – Long SentenceBreak it up. If you have to pause to take a breath, the sentence is too long.

Ly – Use of “LY” AdverbsThese sneak emotions into attributes, or weaken a sentence. Ex: “You’re not nice,” she said angrily. Correct: “You’re despicable.” (There are exceptions.)

M – MediaItalicsMovies, TV shows, books, book-length poems, magazines, plays, radio shows, works of art, instrumentals, operas, and ships/boats (I know vessels aren’t media). Quotation MarksTV episode titles, songs, stories, articles, poems, and photographs.

Mm – Misplaced Modifier – Placement of a word, phrase, or clause that modifies an unintended word, causing ambiguity. Ex: “Slim and beautiful, the crowd applauded for the new Miss America.” This reads “the crowd is slim and beautiful.” Correct: “The new Miss America was slim and beautiful, and the crowd applauded for her.”

Mr – Motivation/Reaction Problem Putting the character’s reaction before what motivates him/her to react. Ex: She shivered with fright as footsteps sounded on the stairs. Correct: Footsteps sounded on the stairs and she shivered with fright. (or) Footsteps sounded on the stairs. She shivered with fright. Check sentences with “as” in the middle. Switch the sentence around, ditch the “as,” and add “and,” or make two sentences with the motivator first.

Np – New Paragraph – New speaker, new subject, or use a one-sentence paragraph to make the sentence more dramatic.

Nu – Negation Use – Phrasing your sentence in the negative. Ex: The park isn’t more crowded on a Sunday than a holiday. Change to positive by deleting “no, not, never, etc.” Correct: The park is as crowded on a Sunday as a holiday.

Op – Omniscient POVAlso called Author Intrusion. The author is talking to the reader. Ex: She prayed for her friends. If she could’ve predicted the future, she’d have prayed for herself.

P – Passive vs. Active Sentence StructureActive structure is “A” does to “B.” Passive structure is “B” is done by “A,” or, the subject of the sentence is acted upon. Ex: Passive: “The soup was stirred by Jane.” Active: “Jane stirred the soup.” Watch for the word “was” before words ending in “ed.” Check: that, had, and forms of “to be” as well.

Pl – Pleonasm – Redundancy. A phrase or word that repeats itself. Ex: Twelve noon (noon), one a.m. in the morning (one a.m.), round in shape (round), I saw it with my own eyes, (I saw it)

Pov – Point of View Problem(1) If you switch to another character’s POV, show the break with an extra space or start a new scene/chapter. (2) Your character can’t see certain things in their POV. Ex: “She turned her back on him and he frowned.” She can’t see a frown if she turns her back. (3) Your characters can’t see themselves. Ex: Her face turned bright red. Correct: “Heat rose to her cheeks.” (4) Avoid: he saw, she heard, he knew, etc., when in that character’s POV. We know who’s seeing, hearing, knowing, etc. Ex: She saw him moving across the room. Correct: He moved across the room.

Pp – Purple/Poetic Prose – A stylistic device. Flowery, poetic speech. Lengthy descriptions and/or too many metaphors. Stay away from this!

Pq – Punctuation for QuotesFor single and double quotes used for emphasis, both the period and the comma go inside the quotation marks, all other punctuation goes outside.

Pr – Progressive PastWatch for “was” and “were” before words ending in “ing.” Ex: Progressive Past: “Jane was running.” Simple Past (usually preferred):  “Jane ran.” Sentences require progressive past if something interrupts an action. “Jane was stirring the soup when the doorbell rang.”

Q – QualifierAn unnecessary word that blurs your meaning and weakens your sentence. Something is, or it isn’t. Ex: “It was a bit cold outside.” Correct: “It was cold outside.” Other examples: rather, a little, a lot, seemed, only, slightly, just, almost, nearly, sort of, kind of, etc. Exceptions: a character’s speech pattern or speculation on what another character is thinking.

R -RepetitionRepeating the same words or phrases too often.

Rd – RedundancyTelling us something again, even in a different way or with different words.

Rp – Reflexive PronounOnly use pronouns ending in “self,” when the pronoun refers back to the subject. Ex: “I hit myself.” Don’t use “own” in conjunction with a pronoun when referring back to the subject. Ex: “My own sister died.” Correct: “My sister died.”

Sa – Simultaneous ActionCommon when a sentence starts with a word ending in “ing.” Having a character do something that’s physically impossible/doing two things at the same time. Ex: Pulling out of the driveway, he drove down the street. Correct: He pulled out of the driveway then drove down the street. (or) He pulled out of the driveway, then drove down the street. 

Sd – Said(1) One can’t: bark, growl, snap, chuckle, howl, grimace, roar, smile, or snarl, etc., a word. These are sounds or facial expressions. Use “said,” and eliminate “said” adverbs. Dialogue should carry the emotion, not an adverb shoring up “said.” (2) Don’t reverse to read, “said she.” Save that for the kiddy books. Ex: “See spot run,” said Jane.

Si – Split InfinitiveAn infinitive is the form of the verb that comes after “to.” A split infinitive is when another word comes between “to” and the verb. Ex: Jane seems to always wear her hair that way. Better: Jane always seems to wear her hair that way. (Not a must rule.)

Sm – Simplify – (1) Use simple, normal, phrases/words. Ex: Buying new clothes improved Jane’s old wardrobe. Incorrect: Jane ameliorated her obsolescent attire, augmenting it with additional purchases. (2) Use as few words as possible to get your point across.

T – That“That” is often a throwaway word. If the sentence makes sense without it, delete.

Tl – Telling(1) Words like: after, as, when, during, until, before, with, and while at the beginning of a sentence is often telling and unnecessary. (2) Watch forms of “to be” and “felt,” as well. Ex: He felt angry. Correct: He clenched his fists so hard, his knuckles turned white.

Tmi – Too Much Information(1) Don’t write long paragraphs with lengthy descriptions of scenes or rooms, etc. Break them up. (2) Don’t go into detail about what your characters’ actual positions are. This makes it harder to picture the scene. Ex: He held the man’s right arm with his left hand, and then kicked with his right foot to the man’s left side. Correct: He held the man’s arm, then kicked him in the side.

Tw – That vs. WhichUse that” to introduce a restrictive (defining) relative clause. Identifies what/who is referred to. Ex: I want to buy a book that has large print. That has large print is the restrictive clause explaining what kind of book I want to buy. “Which” is used with non-restrictive (non-defining) clauses. Ex: The students complained about the textbook, which was hard to understand. The clause which was hard to understand is non-restrictive because it doesn’t point out which book the students complained about. (There are exceptions.)

Uw – Unnecessary Words and PhrasesOmit extra words and phrases. Write each sentence with as few words as possible. Phrase Offenders: the fact that, all of a sudden, at the very least, in spite of, if nothing else, etc. Ex: By the way, I just wondered if you think that this dress looks good on me. Correct: Does this dress look good on me? Word Offenders: that, perhaps, however, although, over, under, up, down, even, quite, rather, suddenly, etc. Ex: Suddenly, I thought that perhaps she should go over there and sit down up on top of the fence. Correct: She should sit on the fence.

W – Walked/Ran – Boring! Options: advanced, ambled, boogied, darted, dashed, drifted, glided, hastened, hiked, jogged, loped, lurched, marched, meandered, minced, moseyed, moved, paced, paraded, patrolled, plodded, pranced, raced, rambled, roamed, roved, rushed, sashayed, sauntered, scampered, schlepped, scurried, scuttled, shuffled, sidled, slogged, slinked, sprinted, staggered, stepped, strode, strolled, strutted, swaggered, tip-toed, toddled, traipsed, tramped, traveled, tread, trooped, trudged, waddled, wandered.

 

Color Options: If a date follows the color, the word wasn’t in use before that date.

Black: onyx, anthracite, inky, black pearl, blue-black, coal, jet, ebony, obsidian, raven, soot/sooty, midnight, shadow, pitch, sable, tar, licorice

Blue: azure (1300), periwinkle, wedgewood, delft, neon, electric, cornflower, turquoise (1350), royal, powder, cobalt (1683), teal, navy, sky, robin’s egg, baby, peacock, lapis, indigo (1555), steel, sapphire (1200), federal, aquamarine, aqua, ultra marine, midnight, blue-green, blue-gray, denim, cadet, cerulean, ocean

Brown/Beige: earth, nutmeg (1400), cinnamon (1300), chocolate (1604), cocoa (1788), tan, chestnut (1300), bay, tawny, roan, mahogany (1660), pecan, rosewood, maple, taupe, coffee, toffee, cafe au lait, mocha, tortoise shell, ginger, walnut (1100), brunette, espresso, ecru, mushroom, fawn, buckskin, nut brown, umber, saddle, raisin, khaki, drab, bronze, copper, tanned, foxy, sandy almond (1300), oatmeal, tumbleweed, sienna, sepia

Gray/Grey: smoky, pearl, charcoal, ash, silvery, dove, gunmetal, steel, sooty, hoary (no wisecracks!), chrome

Green: jade (1585), emerald, malachite, kelly, leaf, moss (1880), celadon (grayish yellow-green-1768), seafoam, hunter, lime (1650), forest (1800), olive, pistachio, grass, pea, mist, chartreuse, verdant, celery, mint, apple, hazel, green-blue, shamrock, avocado, spring, asparagus, pine, seaweed

Orange: apricot, rust(y), peach, tangerine, persimmon, orange-red, shrimp, salmon, terra cotta, auburn, burnt orange, mandarin, copper, nectarine

Pink: petal, neon, blush, carnation, rubescent (blushing-1725), hot, electric

Purple: amethyst, violet, lavender, heliotrope (reddish-lavender), mauve, plum, wood violet (pale purple), lilac, orchid, fuchsia, tyrian (1586), grape, wisteria, royal

Red: ruby, poppy, scarlet, garnet, red-amber, rose, dusky rose, crimson, cinnabar (bright red), wine, claret, cerise (deep red), russet, burgundy, henna, ox-blood, carmine (strong or vivid red), apple, cherry, tomato, red-orange, brick, cardinal, rubicund (ruddy), vermillion, cochineal (vivid), maroon, strawberry, raspberry, blood, candy apple, beet, currant, titian (reddish-brown), lobster, fire engine, coral (reddish-yellow), flame, cranberry

White/OffWhite: milky, quartz, white jade, moonstone, ivory, creamy, snow, pearl, alabaster, opal, magnolia, vanilla, chalky, oyster, marble, bone, cadmium (1822- whitish-blue metallic), eggshell, parchment, lily, porcelain, bleached linen, buff

Yellow: fool’s gold, gold(en), goldenrod, blond, ash blond, platinum, burnished, brassy, amber, palomino, honey, primrose (pale), daffodil (1548), jonquil (1664), butter, buttercup (1777), lemon (1400), dun, tawny, flaxen, sandy, straw, hay, citron (pale), canary (1584), topaz, ochre, sulfur (greenish tint), mustard, butterscotch, yellow-green, dandelion

De-was-ing My Manuscripts

I don’t seem to be able to write during the summer. The heat fries my creativity, or at least stifles it, so I use the time to send out query letters and edit my novels. For this current edit, I’m going through and de-was-ing my manuscripts. I have no objection to the word “was,” but it seems to be falling out of favor. Too passive, perhaps, and too weak. And I use it a lot; I have found pages that have six or seven wases.

Sometimes it’s easy to remove a was. I just replace it with another verb. He was still handsome becomes He still looked handsome.

Sometimes I find it more difficult, and have to rewrite the entire sentence. It was a nice day becomes The sun shone. The warm air smell of just mowed grass. Not brilliant prose by any means, but at least the was is gone, which satisfies the point of the edit, though I don’t see what was wrong with the first version. It might be bland, but it’s also the character’s opinion. By describing the day, it seems less personal; nevertheless, I made the change.

And then there are all those sentences that I can’t figure out how to rewrite. He was out of the habit of talking might become He’d lost the habit of talking, but it seems too severe for the casual comment I intended. In the end, I left it out. It might change the character’s motivation for not responding to a direct question, but at least I got rid of the was.

I’m having a problem with a few other sentences, too. He was a lawyer can become he worked as a lawyer, but that’s not the same connotation at all. Nor is She was in love the same as She loved him. And what about What was she doing here? Or He was her grandfather. Simple, ordinary sentences that became convoluted any way I try to change them. So I left them as is. If an editor or agent rejects my work because of a few stray wases, then they wouldn’t have been worth dealing with.

Or so I tell myself.