Thursday, May 29, 2008

Tech Tops -- Yet More Best of the Worst -- #3

Yet more 100 Best of Worst Writing Mistakes. This is about the third post on this.

Said. Speaking with motion.

Not -- "You're a fool," she sniffed.
"The electron spin coefficient isn't transitive," he chortled. (Just try chortling that.)
"Nobody owns pomeranians any more," he sobbed.

But -- "You're a fool." She sniffed.
"The electron spin coefficient isn't transitive." He chortled.
"Nobody owns pomeranians any more." He sobbed.

Some folks get excited about this business of speaking through a chortle. You see them on the edge of grammar discussions, jumping up and down, red in the face.
They're right, of course.
But they're akin to those fiercely literal people who insist a character, outside of science fiction, cannot drop her voice or run her eyes around the room. God only knows what they make of Mark Anthony borrowing ears.

Logically, you do not speak and laugh at the same time. Nor do you laugh in words.

In practice, for most of these, not one reader in a thousand will notice and those who do mostly won't care.

If you're the sort of person who shovels snow off the driveway even if don't plan to use the car, then be stringent. Do not laugh in words nor allow your characters to do so.
If you're of the school of thought that waits till you need to go to the store before you shovel the drive,
because the snow might melt, after all,
then you might decide to be wildly idiomatic and figurative and just chortle your words.


There is no 'try'. There is only 'do'.

Instead of the wishywashy -- tried, wanted, intended, wished, thought, planned, prepared, set out to, waited to, started to, began -- give the concrete action.

Not -- Harvey planned to rob the stagecoach.
But – Harvey rented a racing mule for his stagecoach robbery.

Not -- Jennifer wanted to be a ballerina.
But – Jennifer took Saturday ballet classes.
(This is another example of saying-and-conveying, btw. Where the concrete action conveys the emotions or motivation, we don't have to both show it and spell it out.)

Not -- The three musketeers began fishing for their hats.
But -- The three musketeers fished their hats out of the fountain.

Not -- Jonas tried to catch the kite.
But -- Jonas grabbed at the kite and missed.

Yoda-ism are a specific example of the larger problem of
Failure to commit.

Enough with the tentative already. Let the narration, (and the characters,) eschew a polite, neutral, noncommittal view of the world and take a bloody declarative stand. Grasp the bull by the horns and put his shoulder to the grindstone.

Not -- Marion started to squeak. Pamela began to unpeel. George was going to erupt.
But -- Marion squeaked. Pamela unpeeled. George erupted.

Not – It seemed unfair.
But -- It was unfair.

Not -- Julian looked miserable and his poor spirits infected us all.
But -- Julian's misery infected us all.

Not -- In a way, Clyde was cruelly misinformed.
But -- Clyde was cruelly misinformed

Not -- Betty helped with the show by making paper doilies.
But -- Betty made paper doilies for the show.

Not -- It was as if the mountain fell inward like a book of many pages folding together.
But -- The mountain fell inward like a book of many pages folding together.

Major action in subordinate phases.

Oh. Go ahead and do it if you want. Put your major action in a dependent clause sucked on the sentence with some participial. There is nothing wrong with putting important action into a subordinate clause.

But think of all that it-doesn't-cost-anything strength and simplicity and emphasis and prominence up there in the independent clause just going to waste.

As a general rule, put the more important action in the main clause.
Don't stick the whole point of your paragraph in some gerund phrase just to vary the sentence structure or some other damn fool thing like that.

Not -- While Maurice strangled Franny, rain dripped outside the window and the radio played Ten In a Row without commercial interruption.
But -- Maurice strangled Franny. Rain dripped outside the window and the radio played Ten In a Row without commercial interruption.
Or -- Maurice strangled Franny while rain dripped outside the window and the radio played Ten In a Row without commercial interruption.

Not -- Bells tolled midnight as the vampire looked out over the sleeping city and meticulously planned an intricate revenge.
But -- Bells tolled midnight. The vampire looked out over the sleeping city and meticulously planned an intricate revenge.
Or -- The vampire looked out over the sleeping city and meticulously planned an intricate revenge as the bells tolled midnight.

Not -- 'Showing' is superior to 'telling', as Thor's hammer proved, flattening another pesky critic.
But -- Thor's hammer flattened another pesky critic, demonstrating the superiority of 'showing' over 'telling'.

Sentences -- Starting with 'and' and 'but'.

This is Rule 672 on the Standard Lists. This makes me just want to say, 'Down with the Tyrany of the Standard List! Start sentences with AND. Do it! Do it! Do it!'

So don't approach 'and' or 'but' at the start of a sentence with a knee-jerk, 'Awooga. Awooga.'

I'd call this one of the things not to do by accident. Like going down a one-way street. Only do this after carefully considering all the outcomes and if there's a police cruiser on your tail.

The leading 'and' or 'but' will show up nicely on the old universal search of the late draft manuscript. Reconsider your crop.
-- Is your conjunction in search of a compound sentence?
-- Does removing 'and' or 'but' leave the meaning quite thoroughly intact?
-- Are you drifting into run-on territory? The manic imp that leads us to the folly of run-on sentences delights in the insertion of unneeded 'ands' at the head of otherwise innocuous sentences.

Not -- He was a fool. And as a grammarian, he knew better. And in this case, he was entirely wrong.
But -- He was a fool. As a grammarian, he knew better. In this case, he was entirely wrong.
Or maybe -- He was a fool, a grammarian who knew better, and, in this case, he was entirely wrong.

Final important consideration. The leading 'and' softens the impact of that sentence. Do you want a strong sentence? Strip the 'and' off.

Not -- He was forcing her to accept him or run. And he knew she didn't have the strength to run.
But -- He was forcing her to accept him or run. He knew she didn't have the strength to run.

Flabby verbs.

Story is action. However lovely the painted backdrop, we look at the actors.
Action is verbs.

One of the very first Great Standard Truths of Writing is 'use interesting and exact words.' Do it always and everywhere. Dior instead of expensive dress. Crepe Suzette instead of dessert.
Nowhere is it more imperative to put down that specific and colorful word than when we come to the verb,

Not -- ran, moved, pulled, sat.
But -- jogged, hitched one foot up on the rung of the chair, overturned, lounged.

Two verbs -- 'to have' and 'to be' -- do yeoman service in our sentences. They are the strongest and simplest verbs.
Value them for their invisible strength and unobtrusive integrity and use them often.

They can also be weak verbs.

A good late-draft activity is to reassess instances of has, had, and was used as predicates.
(grammar alert here -- totally unneeded for most folks,)
in most cases, has, had, and was are auxiliary verbs that can be left entirely alone to go about their proper business.

He had failed, she was fishing, they have given up, are forms of the verbs 'to fail', 'to fish', and the phrasal verb, 'to give up'.

The has, had, and was in those sentences are not forms of the verbs 'to have' or 'to be'.

But when has, had, and was are the verbs 'to be' and 'to have',
give them another thought or two.
Is there a stronger sentence structure?
Is there a neighboring verb you like better?

Look especially at 'to have' and 'to be' in any combination with a pronoun, or words like 'there', 'that', and 'which'.

Not -- It was a dark and stormy night. Lightning flashed.
But -- Lightning flashed through the dark and story night.

Not -- There were any number of problems associated with the trapping of a werewolf. Janine knew this.
But -- Janine approached the werewolf-trapping problem with a combination of hope and disbelief.

Not -- It had been a long journey out of the pit. Marguerite broke the videocamera and ate several of the smaller scientists.
But -- The long journey out of the pit was enlivened by Marguerite's clash with the videocamera and her habit of eating the smaller scientists.

(Hmmm ... I don't think that one is actually an improvement. There's an example of the verb 'to be' earning its keep, giving us cadence and emphasis.)

Not -- Mathew's fits were intermittent but spectacular, throwing the operating theatre into chaos.
But -- Mathew's fits, intermittent but spectacular, threw the operating theatre into chaos.

Not -- There were six unicorns in the lineup, but the maiden couldn't identify the culprit.

But -- The maiden studied the six unicorns in the lineup, but couldn't identify the culprit.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Very, very helpful, Jo!

    I'm still rusty in all the "predicate" and "subordinate phrase" lessons, but this made clear sense to me.

    Thank you.

  3. :::gleefully rubs her hands together:::

    I lurve your examples. I fully plan to come do another read through of all these when it's time to edit my next ms. Of course, I'll probably lose half my word count but I'll be better off for it, I'm sure.

    "Logically, you do not speak and laugh at the same time. Nor do you laugh in words. "

    I disagree. I do too laugh and talk at the same time, usually when I get together with my best friend. I'm just not at all understandable when I do.

  4. Hi Tara --

    Rusty or not, I'll bet the grammar is in the back of the brain somewhere. (g)

  5. Hi LL --

    And there you are. You're one of the writers who gets to have folks laugh out a line of dialog.

    Now I would not exactly have folks laugh out,
    "Economic projections for the second quarter indicate sensitivity to exogenous variables."
    because that's a lot of glottal activity to undertake when all the breath is being used up laughing.

    "The devil with that," he laughed,
    wouldn't bother me, as a reader.

  6. What a wonderful lesson! I should print it out and keep it handy for reference. This is the first time I've seen examples of the difference between writing and creative writing. DELIGHTFUL

  7. Hi BL2R --

    It's not really writing advice. Not cordon bleu.

    It's more ... bite-sized writing tips. McDonald's Happy Meals.

  8. Joanna, I'm Keira from the EJ/JQ board and the formerly-known-as RNTV board.

    I came here looking for a website for you to send you a link I thought you might otherwise miss. And lo and behold. I find this fabulous blog. What a gift (for the laughs and reminders).

    Go here and scroll down looking for "Nora Roberts," and her comment on SML: "I loved it. LOVED it." :)

  9. Hi Keira.

    (jo fans herself madly and tries not to faint)

    I'm trying to figure out how to have a message from a blogsite framed.
    Or maybe tattooed someplace discreet ...

    Or I could take out an ad.

  10. Just like Anna Campbell's debut story for the thing people talked about all of 2007 and is now nominated for a RITA (in fact, her second one is, too), I'll wager you anything that SML is going to go that same route, too. I'm dying, just dying to read your next one. Do let me know if you're going to be on any site where you give away the ARCs. I'll be first in line for a copy.

    What you need is a one of those moving picture frames uploaded with a video of Nora Roberts moving her lips with the text-to-speech audio of "I loved it." How's that for a plan?

  11. Hi Keira --

    You are so kind to compare my work to Anna Campbell's I really admire her up-close, in-your-face interaction between H&H. Very tight. Very intense.

    I read and take mental notes.

    **moving picture frames***

    Oh, giggle.

    I don't think I'm giving away an ARC anywhere. But it occurs to me Kim C might have gotten one ...?

    I'll do a blog give away of some Lord and Spymaster books
    when they SEND me some.

    I am so anxious to see it.
    (pace, pace, pace)

  12. "It's not really writing advice. Not cordon bleu.

    It's more ... bite-sized writing tips. McDonald's Happy Meals."

    Bite-sized, yes. But infinitely better for you than Happy Meals!

    Your examples are extremely helpful in their illustrations, Jo. I'm always coming back to check for these tidbits. Thank you for taking the time to post them.

    I know! You really should consider them more "amuse bouche" than Happy Meals.

  13. Jo, delightful examples, as always.

    Did you notice that when you stop the character from chortling and sniffing their dialogue, and make each tag into its own sentence, that the flow works better if the order is reversed?

    Instead of this:

    "You're a fool." She sniffed.


    She sniffed. "You're a fool."

    and likewise:

    He chortled. "The electron spin coefficient isn't transitive."

    He sobbed. "Nobody owns pomeranians any more."

  14. Hi Beth --

    Yes. The reversal does seem to work nicely. It telegraphs the mood, I think.


  15. Hi Kaige --

    'amuse bouche' Oh my. That's the phrase I was looking for.

    At least they're not crudités. Crunch crunch.

  16. I think the reversal works better precisely because it indicates that the two actions go together (simultaneously or not). If you put the action after the speech it can sound like it's responding to the speech, or just wholly unconnected.

    And I should like to agree with Lorelie Long - I am quite capable of laughing and sobbing my way through speeches. There are times when I have no choice.

  17. Anonymous3:19 PM

    These are great! I'm bookmarking your page. :)

    - Rene

  18. Hi Ros,

    And when the 'tags' are reversed, (when the come before dialog,) I think there's maybe just a shave more imdependenc. Maybe the tagging expression feels more like a 'stand-alone' and less like direct tag.