I’ve recently returned from the Pacific Northwest Writers’ Association‘s summer writers’ conference 2015, and I’m sharing my class notes via English Emporium, for any writers who wish they could have attended but were unable to. This class, Revision: Top Seven Manuscript Pitfalls was taught by Seattle book doctor and author, Jason Black, whose website, Plot to Punctuation, has a ton of great tips for writers.
Jason has written and published a really charming “horse book” for girls, called Pebblehoof. I recommend this book for girls ages 8 to 12 who really love horses and seek stories like Brighty of the Grand Canyon, Misty of Chincoteague, and Black Beauty. I had the honor of reading his book last year, and I’ve since recommended it to my oldest daughter, who collects Breyer horses and enjoys team roping.
I’m sharing my class notes here, in the hope that I can pass Jason Black’s writerly wisdom on to those who follow this blog:
Pitfall #1: Excessive Use of Conjunctions
It’s not that you should never use and in any of your writing, but variety can be a good thing. And is the “vanilla” of conjunctions, so it’s a good idea to try different flavors now and then.
Try replacing an “and” with a gerund instead. For example: Mad Jack took the heater out of its holster, and opened opening the cylinder…
It’s also possible to use an infinitive verb instead of a conjunction:
And sipped => to sip
Or try a preposition:
And felt => until he felt
Pitfall #2: Disregarding Assumed Motion
Any motion that readers can reasonably assume happened in the story, is something you should leave out of your description. So instead of “raised his flask to his lips to sip” you should just write sipped. People can assume your character lifted the flask to his lips.
It’s easy to describe the character going through the motions because when you get in the “zone” as a writer, you want to just get the story typed onto the page. But how important is a character’s motion? If your character sets a book down, then that book needs to come into the story line later. Or perhaps it’s important that she puts a book down to free her hands for action that follows in the story line.
Pitfall #3: Inner Monologue Problems
Inner monologue is the prose which offers the reader a character’s thoughts. In writing groups, it can be referred to as IM. The problem with IM is this: it breaks the POV (point of view). It changes the flow of narrative from 3rd to 1st person personal POV, and this can leave the reader feeling jarred.
Treat inner monologue like a spotlight. Pick the juiciest spots in your story to use it.
A new style of italics for IM has evolved with the invention of the word processor. Back in the days of typewriters, all IM had to be in quotation marks. Today some published works use italics instead, but be aware that not all publishing houses will use italics. Also, if you find your entire page is filled with italics, it might be better to go back and convert that to narrative gloss.
A narrative gloss is the narrator telling us what a character thinks.
Narrative gloss: John was sure Susie was sleeping with his best friend, Michael.
IM: I bet she’s sleeping with Mike.
Here’s something a lot of writers wonder about as well: when you use italics for IM, it isn’t necessary to end it with the words he thought.
Pitfall #4: Using Overly-Complex Sentences
An overly-complex sentence is one which is just too darn long. But you don’t want a bunch of simple sentences in a row either. Vary sentence lengths and sentence structures. Develop an ear for the music of your writing.
Read it out loud. This trick really works! It will help you understand where your sentence structures need to be broken up and/or varied.
Pitfall #5: The Use of Sensory Modalities
We learn about the world around us through our five senses. Avoid using wording like “he saw” or “she smelled” or “they heard” because this is too telly. Just make it happen. Readers can infer which sense was used (unless the sense is ambiguous).
If it’s not clear that a cop heard a gunshot when there’s a lot of other noise in a sprawling metropolis, then yes, it’s okay to use the phrase “he heard the taxi racing down the street”. But it’s even better if you use an active verb, like “the taxi barreled down the street…”
Pitfall #6: The Use of Weak Verbs
Think of all the words we use when cooking: braise, sear, saute, barbecue, etc… English offers a plethora of words, having pirated so many from other languages. Therefore, don’t just say your character cooked dinner. Did he roast it? Did he fry it?
A strong verb offers the reader a clearer, more detailed image in her mind, and it may even give the reader a glimpse of the character’s emotions. Strong verbs are words that literally mean more.
But how do you determine if a verb is weak?
Adverbial phrases that modify your verbs are a red flag. Instead of using the adverb, try to find the verb you originally intended.
In addition to generic verbs, new writers use too many helping verbs. You almost never need these. Quite often, they’re not “helping” verbs; they’re “hurting” verbs. So when you see a helping verb, consider revising it so it uses a more descriptive verb.
- was opening the cylinder => flicked open the cylinder
- was showing inside => glinted up at him
- had come quickly => galloped
Pitfall #7 Not Taking Advantage of Wording for World-building
Let’s begin with a couple of definitions that will help you understand the types of words we’re talking about:
- denotation = dictionary definition
- connotation = the meaning beyond the dictionary definition (what people imply, culturally, when they use that word)
When a person has learned to speak English as a second language, it’s common for them to use a word that doesn’t quite suit the occasion. For example, a foreign person might use the word “village” in a sentence about Seattle, when he/she might have been better served to use the words “city” or “population center.” They all mean the same thing, in terms of dictionary definitions, but “population center” has a scientific nuance to it. “Village” reminds us more of fairy tale lands and places in Europe. “City” is a sprawling metropolis.
All of these have the same denotation, but they each have very unique and different connotations. When world-building, it’s important to find words that have the right connotation. If you’re writing a fantasy novel, don’t use the words “small town” just because you’re too lazy to think up the right word. Find the right word for the village, berg, or hamlet you’re trying to create.
Q and A: The audience was given an opportunity to ask questions.
Q: Why is passive voice a bad thing?
A: Passive voice hides the characters. Example:
The present was opened by Susan. => Susan opened the present.
It’s not that the first sentence is grammatically incorrect. It’s fine, in terms of sentence structure. But the character of Susan is not in the center of the stage in that first sentence. The second sentence puts the character in the spotlight.
Q: When would you want to use the weak word instead of the strong word?
A: Sometimes we can burden the reader with redundancies. We want to avoid repetition and if we’ve already said that the character was slinking in the dark, then you don’t want to keep using slinking every time he moves through the compound. It’s okay to use those moved kinds of words to avoid repetition of the more complex verb that has already been established.