5 Ways to Kill A Sentence

“Great story, but I had a hard time reading it.” “Incredible concept, but your writing didn’t jump off the page.” “A compelling plot, but the style throughout was flat.” But… but… but…

Tired of hearing this about your novel? Maybe you’re guilty of a sentence crime.

It happens every day in some part of the world, a poor, defenseless sentence becomes the unwilling victim of a homicide. Hit and run. Voluntary manslaughter. Murder.

The saddest thing? Often times the killer is unaware a crime has been committed and continues about his or her fiction writing, unable to stop committing the crime again, again, and again.

Here are the top five:

Write a Weak Sentence

A writer afraid to commit to the writing, unwilling to take a risk with his/her thoughts and prose, kills a sentence by decorating a wimpy verb. Instead of a stronger one to suit the character’s intended action, the killer simply places an intensifier like very, so, suddenly, or extremely in front of the wimpy verb. The result? A weaken sentence impact. Life is literally sucked from the prose.

Major Green opened the door very fast.
vs.
Major Green flung open the door.

 

Write a Boring Sentence

A writer who writes with only personal pleasure in mind kills the sentence by downplaying action. Instead of grabbing hold of the prose and committing to strong, aggressive writing, the killer’s passive approach bleeds onto the page as passive voice. The result? An awkward, wordy, and generally vague sentence.

Tragically, hundreds of lives were lost when the mountain was hit by the plane.
vs.
Tragically, hundreds of people died when the plane slammed into the mountain.

 

Write a Formal Sentence

A writer who tries to impress everyone with intellect and/or who hopes to intrigue a reader so much it sweeps him/her into the story kills a sentence by being a classic-literature wannabe. Instead of trusting his/her personal writing style and voice, the killer tries channeling—and fails miserably—classic literature giants. The result? A sentence that’s comical (probably not the writer’s intention). (Thanks to our buddy at www.necronomi.com for this example.)

Her pansy cheeks blushed a deeper shade of rose as I spoke to her, and she cast down her violet eyes and covered her soft, petal-pink lips with a slender, lily-like hand—she was a natural wallflower, after all, and green at the art of flirtation.
vs.
Cheeks blushed, she lowered violet eyes and covered tender lips with her delicate hand. She was a beautiful wallflower, unskilled in flirtation.

 

Write an Overweight Sentence

A writer who rushes thoughts and/or beats around the bush because he/she is unsure where the story needs to go kills a sentence by creating a long, boring string of words. Instead of writing so readers can experience a scene emotionally, the killer uses long, flat descriptions. The result? A sentence that readers often skip because it looks too much like a grocery list.

Paul wore a green and red plaid threadbare shirt with a missing button at the cuff and a pair of frayed black jeans torn below the knee.
vs.
Paul wore Goodwill rejects.

(This could be the first time Paul shows up in the novel. That’s when most grocery-list descriptions occur.)
 

Write an Unclear Sentence

A writer indifferent to the reader and lack passion for his/her story and/or words kills a sentence by forgetting transitions. Instead of keeping the reader moving from one idea to the next, the killer drones on, assuming the reader will figure it out. The result? A sentence that leaves the reader clueless regarding time and plot flow. (This occurs often in a synopsis, back-cover copy, and/or book blurb.)

Gerald discovers Ramona is the power behind Mountain Watch, the environmental activist group protesting Emerald Point. He tries to get to know her. He devises a strategy to overcome her opposition. Gerald believes they’ve reached a compromise professionally and romantically. Ramona ups the ante. She publicly accuses him of killing his wife. To dispute the charges, he’s forced to dig into the death. He uncovers it wasn’t an accident. It was murder.
vs.
Gerald soon discovers Ramona is the power behind Mountain Watch, the environmental activist group protesting Emerald Point. He tries to get to know her in hopes of devising a strategy to overcome her opposition. Just when Gerald believes they’ve reached a compromise professionally as well as romantically, Ramona ups the ante and publicly accuses him of killing his wife. To dispute the charges, he’s forced to dig into the death and soon uncovers it wasn’t an accident. It was murder.

Stop the cycle of violence. Each and every sentence deserves to live to tell a tale. Only you can prevent this senseless crime. Won’t you… please?

Write on!

Grammar No-No’s That Aren’t (Necessarily…)

Attention Grammar Nazis, Ninjas, and Police. The following article may be too much for your purist hearts.
Show of hands… how many of you out there cringe when you see a sentence like this:

The gunman shoved a gun in Jenny’s face and ordered her to immediately open the safe.

Or one like this:

Dominick was certain this bimbo was not the one he’d left the bar with.

Or this:

However Pollyanna tried, she couldn’t get her mind off Darnell.

Or, finally, this:

Brady was tormented by memories of the accident.

Okay, my hands are up for all four.

So, what puts my grammar panties in a wad? Sentences that break grammar rules drilled into my head by my favorite English teacher, Mrs. Bruno. Here’s the crazy thing: Some of those rules were never rules in the first place, and others have changed over the years as the English language has changed.

No-No #1 That Isn’t… Split Infinitives

The gunman shoved a gun in Jenny’s face and ordered her to immediately open the safe.

For the record, no authoritative grammar and usage text exists that forbids split infinitives. However, most readers (especially those over 40 years old) stumble over split infinitives because they were taught such constructions are a grammar no-no. If your goal is to ensure your reader stays focuses on your story and not your writing, we suggest you fix the split.

The gunman shoved a gun in Jenny’s face and ordered her to open the safe immediately.

If you have to mangle a sentence to avoid a split infinitive, DON’T.

Awkward: To rescue the hostages, SWAT decided brazenly to raid the plane.
Better: To rescue the hostages, SWAT decided to brazenly raid the plain.

 

No-No #2 That Isn’t… Ending A Sentence With A Preposition

Dominick was certain this bimbo was not the one he’d left the bar with.

A Southerner stopped a stranger on the Harvard campus and asked, “Could you please tell me where the library is at?” The stranger responded, “Educated people never end their sentences with a preposition.” The overly polite Southerner then apologetically repeated himself: “Could you please tell me where the library is at, you big jerk?”

Blame crazy, annoying Romans for this one. High-school Latin taught us a preposition cannot come after its target word. Somehow, grammarians before us migrated the rule into the English language and gave us all something to fight about for centuries.

If your goal as a fiction writer is to write cleanly and seamlessly and avoid pulling your reader out of the story, consider rewriting the sentence.

Dominick was certain he’d not left the bar with this bimbo.

If you have to mangle a sentence to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition, DON’T.

Awkward: Officials for the beauty pageant still must decide with whom the contestants will meet.
Better: Officials for the beauty pageant still must decide whom the contestants will be allowed to meet with.

 

No-No #3 That Isn’t… Starting A Sentence With However, Hopefully, or Because

However Pollyanna tried, she couldn’t get her mind off Darnell.

Where this rule came from no one seems to know, but most writers cite Struck and White’s The Elements of Style. However, Masters William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White only caution writers not to start a sentence with however when you mean nevertheless.

However is a conjunctive adverb. Without a comma, it means in whatever manner or to what extent. With a comma, it means nevertheless.

However Pollyanna tried, she couldn’t get her mind off Darnell.
Pollyanna couldn’t get her mind off Darnell. However, she wasn’t trying hard enough.

What about hopefully or because? Hopefully is an adverb meaning it is hoped (that). Without a comma, it means a moderate amount of hope. With a comma, it means an extreme amount of hope.

Hopefully CatyAnn’s husband would arrive soon.
Hopefully, CatyAnn’s husband was alive.

Because is a subordinating conjunction meaning for the reason that or since. It’s okay as a sentence starter as long as you include the main clause later in the sentence.

Because no one believed Steve was gone, no one reported him missing.

What about starting sentences with coordinating conjunctions like for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so? No problem here as long as you make sure to include the main clause the word refers to either in the preceding sentence or later in the same sentence.

Incorrect: And smart, too.
Correct: She was a nice girl. And smart, too.

Simply follow with a comma? No, unless there’s an aside that needs one.

Incorrect: And she loved her job.
Correct: And, despite the extra work, she loved her job.

 

Incorrect: Yet, Inez stripped down and dove in anyway.
Correct: Tuesday night was frigid, with the wind whipping off the surf. Yet, Inez stripped down and dove into the water anyway.

 

No-No #4 That Isn’t… Passive Voice

Brady was tormented by memories of the accident.

Passive voice is not grammatically wrong. I repeat: passive voice is not grammatically wrong. However, it is grammatically boring. Why? Because the subject of a passive sentence is stagnant, waiting for someone or something to act upon it. It’s not making things happen. It’s passive. Boring.

Commercial fiction editors tell us they view passive voice as passive writing bleeding onto the page. They see an author unwilling to grab hold of their prose and commit to producing strong, aggressive writing.

If you want your reader to stay interested in your story, stay involved in what your character is going through, rewrite the sentence.

Memories of the accident tormented Brady.

If you have to mangle a sentence to avoid passive voice, DON’T.

The body was riddled with bullet holes.

Passive voice, but much more interesting as emphasis is on the body receiving the action. The writer’s goal is to take away personhood in this grim, impersonal description. The reader gets a sense of isolation, sadness, and tragedy.

Somebody shot the body full of bullets.

Active voice, but a dead sentence (pun intended).

For an in-depth look at passive voice, click here.

 

But What About Dialog?

Misuse of grammar rules (or supposed grammar rules) is perfectly acceptable in dialog if it fits your character’s personality and background. If. It. Fits. Your. Character. Got it?

Write on!

Right Word = Right Image = Right Emotion

You wrote the book of your heart, the novel that you dreamed about writing since you were ten. You know the one. The manuscript that poured out of your soul onto the page like it was dictated by God. Your family and your critique partners said it was the best book they ever read. You even placed in a few contests. So, you published that baby knowing that once the world fell in love with it, too, Oprah would select your novel for her reading club.

Except…

Reader reviews say the characters are dull and unlikeable, the story lacks depth and dramatic tension, and the writing fails to jump off the page and engage the reader.

So, babe, how do you feel? Angry? Irritated? Enraged? Incensed? Annoyed? Galled? Pissed? Infuriated? Vexed?

Maybe you’re disappointed? Baffled? Failed? Dumbfounded? Frustrated? Disillusioned? Puzzled? Thwarted?

Perhaps you’re distraught? Heartbroken? Anguished? Sad? Crushed? Despondent? Miserable? Depressed?

Actually, you could be any one (or more) of those. However, if you’re telling someone this story in an email or on a rant site on the Internet, your reader won’t comprehend exactly how you feel unless you pick the right words to convey the right image to invoke the right emotion.

This takes more than a spin through a thesaurus. It takes understanding that words may have similar meanings and yet different intensities.

Words have shades of meaning.

Think about the first set of emotions: irritated, annoyed, galled, vexed, incensed, pissed, infuriated, and enraged. They’re all synonyms for angry but–more importantly–they’re shades of angry. Think about it. Although we all have the basic feelings of happiness, anger, sadness, or fear, we actually feel different mixtures of these emotions at one time or another.

If you’re upset about reader reviews, saying you’re simply angry doesn’t tell the whole story, does it?

Angered by the review, Annie vowed to show those “stupid readers” who they were dealing with.

A basic statement of fact, but the reader has no real idea how Annie feels.

Irritated by the review, Annie vowed to show those “stupid readers” who they were dealing with.

This is not her first bad review, and she’s getting a bit discouraged.

Annoyed by the review, Annie vowed to show those “stupid readers” who they were dealing with.

This is her twelfth bad review, and she’s wondering what the problem is.

Galled by the review, Annie vowed to show those “stupid readers” who they were dealing with.

She’s wondering if should reply to one of the readers and point out two grammar errors in his comments.

Vexed by the review, Annie vowed to show those “stupid readers” who they were dealing with.

She’s wondering if she should ask Amazon to delete a few of those nasty reviews.

Incensed by the review, Annie vowed to show those “stupid readers” who they were dealing with.

She’s wondering if she should troll Facebook to find each nasty reviewer.

Pissed by the review, Annie vowed to show those “stupid readers” who they were dealing with.

She names the nasty readers on her Facebook page.

Infuriated by the review, Annie vowed to show those “stupid readers” who they were dealing with.

She actually creates a Facebook page called “Writers that Hate Stupid Readers.”

Enraged by the rejection, Annie vowed to show those “stupid readers” who they were dealing with.

She actually sends nasty emails to all less-than-five-star reviewers.

Think Paint Chips

One way to grasp shades of meaning is to think about the cards paint manufacturers provide that show the range of related paint colors.

Consider the next set of emotions we talked about earlier: baffled, failed, dumbfounded, frustrated, disillusioned, puzzled, and thwarted. These synonyms describe disappointed. Let’s put them in order from the weakest to the strongest, i.e., their shades of meaning:

failed

thwarted

frustrated

puzzled

disillusioned

dumbfounded

baffled

Enough with emotions. What about another noun, like problem? Synonyms for problem include difficulty, trouble, dilemma, obstacle, quandary, uncertainty, and issue. Let’s order them from weakest to strongest:

difficulty

uncertainty

dilemma

quandary

trouble

obstacle

issue

Okay, let’s try an action, like pretend. Synonyms for pretend include fool, feign, dupe, bluff, masquerade, deceive, and simulate. Ready to sort weakest to strongest? Go!

fool

bluff

dupe

feign

masquerade

simulate

deceive

Organize the words based on your background and experience.

This exercise helps you understand and appreciate how various shades of words can help you choose the right one for the right image to convey the right fiction picture to your reader.

Note to historical writers: You have the added challenge of using words that are time-period appropriate but not so obscure your reader gets confused and lost.

Every word matters. 

Every word carries a measure of meaning. Shades of meaning are subtle differences that can dramatically change how your reader perceives your writing and how your story is received.

Write on!

The Comma Sutra of Fiction Writing (Yeah, I Went There)

The comma is the most commonly used punctuation mark in standard written English. Yet, it is the most misused.

I have good news about commas and bad news. The bad news? Hundreds of rules regarding correct comma usage exist. The good news? You only need to know six of them for 99% of commercial writing purposes.

Rule #1: Use a comma with an introductory element, i.e., a word, phrase, or clause before the main part of a sentence. The element usually tells something about the main clause.

When the waltz was over, Ewan released his partner.
Once he produced an heir, his major responsibility to the family was over.
If Buddy cannot control his temper, he may lose his job.
Running as fast as she could, Maureen caught up to the suspect and threw him onto the ground.

Rule #2: Use a comma to set up a strong contrast. Potential hint words include but, yet, not, or never.

He admitted to strangling her, but not intentionally.
She was plagued by indecision, yet would act out impulsively.
Carmen, never the subtle flower, forced Lord Sagemore to her.
Wilma, not Betty, had the necklace made of rocks.

Rule #3: Use a comma before a coordinating conjunction (and, but, for, nor, yet, or, so) that joins two independent clauses.

Anne wants a life of freedom, but her father wants to use her as a pawn in marriage.
Beatrice’s hair smoked in the middle of dinner, and the sight brought tears to my eyes.
Tomorrow began his trial, so they hammered on his testimony all night.
The plant is called bleeding hear, for it’s poisonous to cattle.

Rule #4: Use a comma to separate consecutive words, phrases, and clauses.

Dedicated on a cold, raw day in January, the memorial soothed everyone’s hearts.
Carrie Ann’s closet was full of old, worn clothes.
We found the message scrawled on the garage door, beneath a window sill, and above the mantel.
Figure out how much the band trip will cost, how much time it will take, and how much fundraising it will require.

Exception: If one of the adjectives modifies another word in the series, do not separate them with a comma.

Mandy wore a bright blue gown.

Bright modifies blue.

Mandy wore a bright blue evening gown.

Bright modifies blue, and blue modifies evening gown. Note: evening gown is considered one thing, i.e., compound noun.)

Mandy wore an amazing, unique evening gown for the awards ceremony.

Amazing does NOT modify unique.

What about that pesky serial comma? No specific rule regarding this exists. Go with your personal preference.

That being said, sometimes a serial comma (sometimes referred to as an Oxford comma) is necessary to avoid confusion, usually with words used in pairs but set off as one item.

Desiring dinner on the train to London, Cecily noted all meals came with salad, soup, entrée, two vegetables, bread, ice cream and cake, and coffee.

Here, ice cream and cake are one dessert. So, to avoid confusion, a serial comma is necessary.

Rule #5: Use a comma around nonessential elements that could be removed without changing the meaning of the rest of the sentence.

Carmen, twice Argon’s age, refused a divorce.
Adrian wanted to run into the airplane propeller, an act that would have dramatically shortened his life expectancy.
Angie shoved Connie, who appeared restless, out the back door into the storm.
Bryant, who never expected to get caught, fainted when the guilty verdict was revealed.

Rule #6: Use a comma to set off dialog tags such as she said or he explained.

“Thomas confessed to the crime,” Roman said.
Blaise said, “Why don’t you join us?”
“You must have been moving at a pretty good clip,” Baz remarked.
“How,” Margaret asked,” can you always be so darn impulsive!”

 

Still not sure about when to and when not to use commas?

Try this: First, during the draft stage, read your sentences aloud or at least slowly enough so that an audience could easily understand you. As you read, place commas where you think they go—trust your instincts. Go ahead and put the commas where you “hear” them.

Then, go back and justify every single comma you used according to the rules listed here.

If you know the reasons to use commas and can’t think of a reason a comma should be there, leave it out.

Write on!

Conflict in Fiction… Yeah, You Gotta Have It (Part 1)

Conflict is the lifeblood of a manuscript. Without it, nothing happens except a lot of rationalization and angst.

Deb Dixon explains it perfectly: Conflict is the reason your character can’t have what he or she wants. If your character could have what he or she wanted, then you have no book!

In life, how we manage conflict—how we act when up against it—makes us… “us.” Same is true for your characters, especially main ones.

Conflict keeps your story going and reveals much about your characters.

Conflict is the gap between expectation and the actual result. Three levels of conflict for your characters add “meat” to your story, so consider what your main character faces on each of these levels:

• InnerInside the character… Often occurs when a person has a disagreement between values he or she holds to be important. By adjusting a character’s circumstances, you can develop internal conflict.
• PersonalBetween characters
• Universal/societalCharacters versus fate/God/the system

Although you can probably thinking of several more, consider the five major sources of conflict for people:

• Money
• Sex
• Family
• Religion
• Politics

Keep these sources of conflict in mind when developing your characters.

All characters must have an agenda, i.e., goals they want to achieve.

That gives them a driving force, even if it’s passive or negative. Characters can pursue their goals aggressively, subtly or not at all, which also says something about them.

Thank you, once again, Deb Dixon. Conflict is:

• A struggle against someone or something in which the outcome is in doubt.
• Bad things happening to good people.
• Bad things happening to bad people.
• Friction, tension, or opposition.
• Two dogs and one bone.

For example, in romantic fiction, conflict works best when your heroine wants one thing and your hero wants another.

Conflict doesn’t have to be a big, huge thing that has your hero and heroine fighting like cats and dogs every time they’re in a room together. However, conflict can’t be something they can easily fix with a simple conversation over a beer or a glass of wine. Even in a light-hearted contemporary romance, both your hero and heroine must have skin in the game, and the conflict must be sustainable, i.e., able to last through the entire book.

In YA, conflict may be between the main character and himself/herself or the main character and the powers that be/society. In mystery/suspense, conflict may be between the main character and the villain. In Science Fiction, it may be between the main character and technology or the main character and the powers that be. No matter the genre, conflict is integral.

Make it sustainable or don’t bother.

Why sustainable? Because that’s what keeps a reader’s interest. If not sustainable, conflict runs thin within the first third of the book, and your main characters spend the final two-thirds rationalizing to themselves and the reader why they’re not solving their challenges.

Sustainable conflict is best when the characters are in direct opposition in a struggle that neither one can walk away from.

How can you ensure your conflict is sustainable? It must have various levels where things happen to raise the stakes for both your hero and your heroine.

How do you do that?

With some answers to some simple questions and the tried-and-true conflict box.

Let’s take a look at The Bridges of Madison County (Originally, a romance novel that became a well-known movie).

Who changes the most

or

Whose story is it?

Meryl Streep’s character… Francesca Johnson… the heroine.

Who makes the main character change?

Clint Eastwood’s character… Robert Kincaid… the hero.

At the beginning of the story, what must your main character have or be, i.e., what’s her goal?

Francesca must be a good wife and mother.

At the beginning of the story, what must your hero have or be, i.e., what’s his goal?

Robert must finish this photography job and move on to the next one.

Your story launches when your protagonist pushes to achieve her goal.

In The Bridges of Madison County, the story launched when Robert stopped and asked Francesca for directions to Roseman Bridge.

Your story takes shape when your antagonist pushes to achieve her goal.

The story takes shape when Robert accepted Francesca invitation to dinner.

The back-and-forth, cause-and-effect pushing and blocking of goals is fuel for your story.

This back and forth creates a nice multi-layered story that keeps everyone’s attention and keeps us all invested in both characters.

Over and over again, Francesca felt pulled to the stranger that ignited a long-extinguished passion for life. Over and over again, Robert tried to respect Francesca’s situation in the community and her marriage but couldn’t help himself.

The big Black Moment was when Francesca found herself (with hubby) behind Robert at a red light. Robert is leaving town, and Francesca considered jumping out of the truck and running away with Robert. She chose not to.

To determine if you have a focused central conflict, run a conflict box. (Kudos to Michael Hauge.)

Our protagonist is Francesca. She changes the most in the story.

Her goal is to be a good wife and mother.

Our antagonist is Robert.

His goal is to finish this photography job and move on to the next one.

Now, what blocks Francesca from being a good wife and mother? A stranger (Robert) ignites a passion within her.

What blocks Robert from finishing this photography job and moving on to the next one? They fall in love.

Sustainable conflict is when the heroine (in this story, the protagonist) and hero (in this story, the antagonist) are in direct opposition in a struggle that neither one can walk away from.

To check this, first draw a line from your protagonist’s goal to your antagonist’s conflict. If your protagonist is causing your antagonist’s conflict by pursuing her goal, you’re halfway home.

Is Francesca’s pursuit of being a good wife and mother causing Robert’s conflict? Yes. He wants to respect her marriage but can’t help falling in love with her.

Great! Now the other half. If your antagonist is causing your protagonist’s conflict by pursuing his goal, you have sustainable conflict. Draw a line from your antagonist’s goal to your protagonist’s conflict. If your antagonist is causing your protagonist’s conflict by pursuing his goal, you have sustainable conflict.

Is Robert’s pursuit of finishing this job and moving on causing Francesca’s conflict? Yes. She wants to let him do his job but keeps finding ways to spending time with him.

Yeah! Sustainable conflict! Whoo hoo!

Write on!

Next… Part 2… Sustainable conflict in Mystery/Suspense…

One-Minute Grammar… Hyphenation Between Words

Poor Mr. Hyphen. He gets no respect. Considering he can combine the power of two words (sometimes three) and force them to work together to describe a noun—all in one simple swoop—Mr. Hyphen is one mighty mark.

Andrew planned to build a new company headquarters with fifty stories.
Andrew’s plans called for a new fifty-story company headquarters.

Verb or noun phrases are hyphenated when they serve as compound adjectives, i.e., work together to describe nouns. If they show up somewhere else in a sentence, use no hyphen.

Ken quit school in the fifth grade.
Ken’s fifth-grade education limited his ability to find work.

 

Marjorie’s son was eighteen years old.
Marjorie’s eighteen-year-old son planned to join the Air Force after graduation.

 

“Can you believe it?” Gina said. “That pain in the ass sold my car! That move is going to make my life difficult.”
“He sold my car,” Gina said. “Talk about your pain-in-the-ass, make-my-life-difficult moves.”

However, be on the lookout for when not using a hyphen could cause confusion.

CJ saw a man eating tiger today.
CJ saw a man-eating tiger today.

 

The president spoke to small business men.
The president spoke to small-business men.

If all words of the compound adjective are nouns, don’t hyphenate.

Is that the ice cream truck I hear coming down the street?
She spent the evening watching Saturday Night Fever.

If the first word is an adverb ending in –ly, don’t hyphenate.

Katie nodded at the barely living man that lay crumpled against the wall.
What an incredibly long movie!

If the first word is a comparative or superlative adjective, don’t hyphenate.

Rainbow Falls was the more dangerous trail of the two available.
Vlad is not the most popular leader in the country.

If the last element of the compound adjective is just a letter, don’t hyphenate.

Trish only cooked with Grade A eggs.
People with type B personalities are usually calm and relaxed.

Here are some other handy, dandy hyphen helps:

• Use a hyphen to ensure a reader knows exactly what word you’re trying to convey.

Archie needed to re-press his jeans.
Archie needed to repress his memories.

• Use a hyphen with compound numbers or when a fraction is used as an adjective. If used as a noun, don’t hyphenate.

Cassandra’s gas tank was two-thirds full.
Two thirds of the movie was over by the time they arrived at the theater.

• Use a hyphen when joining a prefix to a word that must be capitalized.

Carl’s anti-American leanings caused friction with the family.
“I found pro-Castro propaganda hidden in the false bottom of a desk drawer,” Juan said.

Write on!

How To Be An Invisible Writer

If you read the headline and expected tips on how to disappear so that your family, friends, and/or co-workers leave you alone so you can make your next deadline, sorry. However, if you have time, read on anyway. You just might learn something.

As a writer, you want your reader to be interested in your characters and the action, not your writing. You must remain invisible and not distract your reader from the story with obvious or strained writing. One way is to vary sentence length and variety.

Sentence Length Involves the Writer’s Purpose, Good Grammar, Variety, And Rhythm

The average length of a commercial fiction sentence is between 14 and 22 words.

Short sentences get to the point. Action scenes and male dialog need shorter sentences.

A loose, palm-sized rock perched inches from her hand. She reached out, twice, to grasp the support. Just out of range. Shifting slightly, she stretched again. Fingertips scraped the rough edge. Still too far.
Risking shoulder dislocation, she shot the hand out again. Little more… little more… finally, she closed her fingers around the stone.
Got it!
Vicky stabbed the crude axe into the surface, using the stone to work her way back up the slope. Anchor right toe hook into snow. Push. Dig in. Slide right foot up. Repeat.
“Hold on! I got ya.”
Heavy breathing covered hers. Powerful hands grabbed hers.

Short sentences are also effective when used to focus a reader’s attention on a particular point to create drama.

Piercing blue eyes. Long, straight nose. High cheekbones. Stubborn jaw. All revealed a European aristocratic lineage.
Christiaan.
Her blood ran cold. After what he’d put her through, what he’d taken from her, she should have let him fall.
And die.

However, if too many sentences are short, the prose sounds choppy, childish, or like a bad imitation of Ernest Hemingway.

Now, stop reading this, grab your current work in progress, and read any two pages. Don’t worry. I’ll wait for you. (Cue Jeopardy theme song.)

Okay, you’re back. Did you find sentences and/or paragraphs that looked like this?

Shirley looked at her watch. It said one o’clock. She glanced at the sidewalk café. It was empty. She started to walk away. Marty jumped out of a taxi.

Too many short sentences are easy to fix. The simplest? Combine them with coordinating or subordinating conjunctions.

[table id=1 /]

Pushing back the sleeve of her raincoat, Shirley looked at her watch. Three o’clock. She checked the sidewalk café for the tenth time and shrugged. As she walked toward the subway entrance, a taxi screeched to a halt in front of her. Marty jumped out, another cheesy forgive-me grin on his face.

Isn’t that better?

On the opposite extreme, long sentences offer more detail and thought. Narration and introspection are places to use longer sentences.

Being summarily dismissed was not something his highness Baron Christiaan Bernhard Jan Hubertus Godin van Laere was used to. Not even if the speaker was amazingly good looking, utterly fascinating, and temptingly kissable.
Women generally tripped over themselves—and each other—vying for his attention. They generally fell into two categories. Those who wanted to be filthy rich and those harboring a serious Cinderella fantasy.
Now, a third category… capable of single-handedly reversing the effects of global warming.

However, too many long sentences make prose difficult to read.

Now, stop reading this lesson, grab your current work in progress, and read another two pages. (Cue Jeopardy theme song.)

Okay, you’re back. Did you find sentences and/or paragraphs that looked like this?

Tom Sawyer made Becky Thatcher jealous by talking to Amy Lawrence, and then Becky was upset so she invited everyone except Tom and Amy to a picnic. Later, after Tom and Becky made up, they visited a cave where they played hide-and-seek and found a beautiful pool of water. But they got lost and used up all their candles because they were trying to find the right path out of the cave.

Too long sentences are easy to fix, too. First, figure out the main point you want to make and break the sentence into at least two shorter ones. Then, prune excessive phrases, words, and clauses.

Tom Sawyer made Becky Thatcher jealous by talking to Amy Lawrence. Upset, Becky invited everyone to a picnic except Tom and Amy. Exploring a cave after they made up, Tom and Becky became separated from their friends. Scared and lost, they used up all their candles trying to find a way out.

Isn’t that better?

Now, don’t jump to the conclusion that if you aim simply for medium-sized sentences, you’re on the right track. Wrong! First, the key to strong, readable prose is a variety of sentence lengths. Second, remember what we said each type works best for:

✔ Short sentences focus a reader’s attention on a particular point to create drama. Think male dialogue. Think action scenes. Think end-of-scene hooks. Think hot, hard-and-raw sex scenes. (Every pun intended.)

✔ Long sentences offer more detail and thought. Think narration and introspection. Think scene setting. Think sensual, romantic love scenes.

Give Prose Life and Rhythm with Sentence Variety

Just as sentence length is important to readable prose, so, too, is sentence variety. Remember when you were learning to read? How those first books had simple sentences?

The boat was big. The boat was blue. The boat was in the ocean. The big, blue boat was in the ocean.
See Dick. See Jane. See Dick run. See Jane run. See Dick and Jane run.

But now you can read and so can your readers. Sentence variety creates prose that grabs—no, demands—attention.

FYI… Twenty sentences in a row that start with “She went,” She said,” or “She grabbed” are fine for your rough draft, but for your final manuscript you need more than simple, subject-verb-complement sentences.

Lady Ann sat down at the banquet. She realized she was next to the Duke. She thought what an amazing coincidence.

One way to add life and rhythm is to arrange thoughts in a climactic order, or by what is most important.

When Lady Ann sat down at the banquet, she realized that, by sheer coincidence, she was next to the Duke.

Isn’t that better?

Adrian visited with Ramona and Katarina last summer to decide who should be the next Lady Arlington. Ramona was perfect. She’d been trained well and would be a wonderful chatelaine, wife, and companion. Katarina was very different. She lacked Ramona’s upbringing. But, Adrian noted, she possessed a passion for life he found intrigue and desirable.

Another way to add “umph” is to alternate short and long sentences as well as vary the sentence openings.

Last summer, Adrian visited Ramona and Katarina. He needed to decide who should be the next Lady Arlington. Ramona was perfect. Her upbringing ensured she’d be a wonderful chatelaine, wife, and companion. However, Katarina was different. What she lacked in Ramona’s knowledge and skill she more than made up for with passion. Adrian—and his manhood—found that truth hard to ignore.

Better, eh?

Be careful… sometimes when a writer starts moving stuff around they forget an important grammar issue: parallel construction.

Avoiding Chad no longer interested her as much as to confront the jerk.

Read the above sentence aloud. Sound funky? That’s because the main verb in the first part of the sentence—avoiding—doesn’t match tense as the verb in the second half—to confront. Parallel construction calls for writing all the similar parts of a sentence in the same way, meaning adjectives should be parallel by adjectives, nouns by nouns, clauses by clauses, verb tense by verb tense, voice by voice… get the picture?

Avoiding Chad no longer interested her as much confronting the jerk.

That’s much better. One more for kicks and giggles.

Archie was upset. He refused to believe his wife would leave him. He couldn’t believe his partner would betray him. And, he wouldn’t believe his research would be condemned by the world.</em

Hmm… not a bad set of sentences, but they could be so much better.

Archie’s life was over. He couldn’t believe his wife would leave him, his partner would betray him, and the world would condemn his research.

Yes, that’s much better.

Remember, a reader is interested in your characters and the action, not you or your writing. Remain invisible at all times.

Write on!

6 Things You Need To Know About “Was”

Some writers love it. Most are passive about it.

Some editors can take it or leave it. Others abhor it.

Was can be your best friend or your worst enemy. It all depends on how you use it in your writing.

“Was” Is Your Rough-Draft Go-To Verb.

Was is the perfect verb to use when throwing down the rough draft of your novel.

Madeline was sad.
The stranger was in the dark hall.
Emily was coming around the corner.
It was imperative they find the killer.

Instead of stopping to look for the right word to describe how sad Madeline was or what the stranger was doing in the dark hall, tuck was under your belt and write, write, write. Using was allows your mind to wander, to see and feel your characters as the story unfolds in your head and on your computer.

No stopping to wordsmith Emily’s journey around the corner or spell out the specifics about the elusive killer. Simply keep the keyboard clicking until your type The End. Then (and only then) feel free to search and find was and do with it as you wish.

“Was” Isn’t Necessarily Passive Voice, But Can Be Boring.

Ever get back a contest entry, critique package, or editor review with every was circled and marked, “Passive”? If was isn’t used as a transitive verb, i.e., it’s taking an object, then it’s not in passive voice.

John was a teacher.
The teacher was John.

Both sentences are active voice. Here, was acts as a linking verb, connecting a word or words in the predicate with the subject in the sentence.

So you may not have committed a passive-voice crime, but you were in violation of boring, mushy writing.

The stranger was in the dark hall.

Not bad for your first draft, but come on now, you’re in polish mode. Give us a stronger visual. Help us see what’s happening exactly.

The stranger waited in the dark hall, pacing.

Here’s another rough-draft goodie.

Renee was an unfulfilled woman. Every day was the same, but she trudged on.

Wow, was squared. Okay, no question about how Maddie sees herself, but couldn’t you do better?

Renee trudged on every day, unfulfilled.

Yes! Now Renee’s image is quick, clear, and definitive.

“Was” In Passive Voice Is A No-No…

Editors and readers don’t like was in the passive voice because they prefer an active, resourceful protagonist involved in the dynamics of a tension-filled story. Was in the passive voice is stagnant, waiting for someone or something to act. Stuff isn’t happening. No action. No strong pacing. No excitement. Blah.

Marissa was comforted by a stranger after the car accident.

Passive voice:

Must-Have #1: form “to be” + past participle (Think verb form ending in -ed that expresses completed action. Of course, there are a few exceptions like paid, thrown, bitten, and driven.)

Marissa was comforted by a stranger after the car accident.

Must-Have #2: A receiver of the action (a direct object) that is the subject of the sentence.

Marissa was comforted by a stranger after the car accident.

May Have: The doer of the action is in a prepositional phrase that begins with by. (Why may have? On rare occasions, a passive voice sentence doesn’t contain by, e.g., A body was found last night.)

Marissa was comforted by a stranger after the car accident.

So, how to fix? Make the doer of the action the subject of your sentence.

A stranger comforted Marissa after the car accident.

Now that’s an active sentence. Now we’re interested in what’s happening to Marissa.

… Unless “Was” In Passive Voice Is Better.

Sometimes was works in passive voice because the doer of action is unknown or unimportant. Sometimes the writer needs to emphasize the receiver of action.

The body was riddled with bullet holes.

Here, emphasis is on the body receiving… well… action. The doer is not known. Maybe your goal is to take away personhood in this grim, impersonal description. Your reader gets a sense of isolation, sadness, and tragedy. If you change this to active voice, you get:

Somebody shot the body full of bullets.

Active, but rather insensitive. This body was a living human being not so long ago. A word like somebody is an indefinite pronoun. The reader still doesn’t know who the killer is. Vague words don’t add strength to any idea, let alone one that shows a person shot to death. So here, passive voice works.

Jane was taken to the cleaners.

Idiomatic expressions give you some liberties as well. You don’t want to overdo them or they become cliché. But an occasional sentence like this one is okay, especially if it’s internal thought.

“Was” Tells Instead of Shows.

In your rough draft, was in a few hundred sentences is okay. However, leave them in there for your final draft and you’re in trouble. A writer that is unwilling or unable to be assertive in his/her writing leaves was in too many sentences and ends up telling the story instead of showing it

He was caressed… She was willing… Her blouse was slid off her shoulders…    He was pressed closer to her…

Exciting… NOT! You can take a love scene to the bedroom door or go all the way, but you must put some tension and passion in it to keep your reader.

His mouth brushed hers as she leaned into him. Her soft lips parted.
“Kiss me,” she whispered.
He liked that. His kiss deepened with a promise as he caressed her. And when he’d managed to get all the buttons on her blouse undone, she rolled her shoulders to help him slide the garment off. He liked that too. He hadn’t done this in awhile.

Now that will keep your reader turning pages.

“Was” Is Not A Strong Sentence Starter.

Pairing was with it or there at the beginning of a sentence robs the word string of oomph. Writing expletives such as it was or there was in your first draft is perfectly acceptable because it’s how your mind works to get the story out of your head.

However, at editing time, your job is to ensure your reader gets the picture in his/her head you want them to have and to keep reading. It was and there was are so vague they leave your readers doing the mental “huh?”

It was questionable whether Calvin can produce an alibi or not in the arson case.

What is itIt refers to nothing. Come on. You can do better.

Calvin may not have an alibi in the arson case.

Yep, better.

There was a noise behind her. Sandy knew she was not alone in the basement.

Expletives put emotional distance between the character and the reader. Who wants that?

A rustling noise behind her. Sandy’s breath caught. She wasn’t alone in the basement.

Oooo… scary… don’t you want to know more?

Was can be your best friend or your worst enemy. You’re the writer. You decide.

Write on!

Does Your Reader “See” What You “See”?

Last weekend, I was reminded that people “see” words differently.

Hubby and I were cycling a beautiful section of road near Mountain Green. At one point, a woman and a man rode by and waved.

Hubby said, “Did you see that couple blow past us?”

“Yeah, how long have they been together?” I replied. Hubby looked at me like I’d grown a second head. (Since he regularly rides with the local cycling club and the pair waved, I assumed he knew the riders.)

“What makes you think they’re ‘together’?”

“Because you said ‘couple’,” I answered. And I’m a hopeless romantic.

“I said ‘couple’ because there were two of them.”

Dictionary.com offers three definitions for the word couple: (1) as two of the same sort considered together; pair. (2) two persons considered as joined together, as a married or engaged pair, lovers, or dance partners. (3) any two persons considered together.

Obviously, Hubby had the first definition in mind because he’s a linear-thinking engineer. Two people… both on bicycles… both riding fast… a couple.

I’m a right-brained creative type with a penchant for romance novels and romantic comedy films. Definition #2 is what I was thinking. Two people… a woman and a man… same interest (cycling)… together… a couple.

Our different backgrounds, experience, and thought processes had us “see” the word differently.

Choose your words carefully. Ensure your reader “sees” what you want them to see.

Take, for example, the word home. The denotative meaning (dictionary definition) is a place where one lives; a residence. Its connotative meaning (the emotional associations of a word or the emotional meaning) is a place of security, comfort, and family. If your reader grew up in a safe, loving household, she’ll associate the word home with affection and lovely memories. However, if her background is the opposite, home might conjure up a very different set of thoughts.

Think cat. The denotative meaning of cat is a carnivorous mammal, domesticated as a rat catcher or pet. If you like cats, the connotative meaning may be graceful motion, affectionate, playfulness, noble reserve, and self-sufficiency. If you don’t like cats, the connotative meaning may be stealthiness, spitefulness, coldness, and haughty disdain.

Words can have negative, positive, and neutral connotations. Both woman and chick have the denotation adult female in North American society, but chick has somewhat negative connotations, while woman is neutral.

Think about the words reserved and withdrawn, curious and nosey, cowardly and timid, self-confident and smug, frugal and cheap, strong-willed and stubborn, and faddish and stylish. What do you “see” when you think of these words? What do you think your reader would “see?”

Watch yourself with ye olde thesaurus.

Synonyms may have the same or nearly the same meanings as one another, but almost always have different connotations or emotional meanings.

What are some different words and phrases that refer to a young person… youngster, child, kid, little one, small fry, brat, urchin, juvenile, minor? Some of these words–little one, small fry–carry positive connotations, while others–brat, urchin--invoke negative connotations and some–youngster, child, kid, juvenile, minor–offer neutral connotations.

Alexia considered her situation. Could she become a mother to these three little ones?
Alexia considered her situation. Could she become a mother to these three youngsters?
Alexia considered her situation. Could she become a mother to these three brats?

The word choice tells us a lot about Alexia, doesn’t it? In the first example, Alexia appears concerned, but happy about becoming a mother. In the second, she appears anxious that she may not have what it takes to become a mother. In the final example, Alexia appears upset about becoming a mother.

Is it really that big a deal?

Yep.

 Ruth said, “I don’t love you anymore, Roger.”

A basic statement of fact, but the reader has no real idea how Ruth feels about this turn of events.

Ruth whispered, “I don’t love you anymore, Roger.”

Ruth is sorry for how she feels but thinks Roger has a right to know.

Ruth cried, “I don’t love you anymore, Roger.”

Ruth grieves for their lost love.

Ruth shouted, “I don’t love you anymore, Roger.”

Ruth really doesn’t give a frig how her declaration will affect Roger.

(Curious as to how many ways you can say said? Check out 300 Ways to Say “Said.”)

Word choice is a big deal. As a fiction writer, you have the power to conjure the exact emotion and visual imagery you want your reader to have simply by using the right word.

Powerful stuff, huh?

Write on!

Why Hire An Editor?

A friend recently asked me to take a look at a novel she’d bought for her Kindle. A huge fan of cowboy romance, she’d been extremely excited to sample a new indie-pubbed offering by one of her favorite fiction authors. However, my friend refused to read past the first three pages because “the writing was stilted, convoluted, and difficult to follow.”

She planned to post a negative review and ask for a refund on her purchase. My friend’s reasoning? “I read fiction for pleasure. If I have to work that hard to figure out who is saying what and what is going on, I’m done with that book and that author, and I’m not afraid to let others know it!”

Ouch!

What could cause a reader be “done” with a book AND an author?

I took a gander at the pages in question. I found long, run-on sentences, vague pronoun references, and a complete lack of transitions that could leave a reader clueless about time and plot flow.

All things a professional editor would have noticed and fixed with the author’s assistance. All things a disgruntled reader could use in cyberspace to trash your novel, your writing, and your career.

I know many authors that swear by their editors and just as many that swear they’ll never waste a dollar on one. To each his own, but here’s my five cents on why you should protect your writing and spend the money on a professional edit:

You’re serious about your career, right?

Writing one outstanding book after another is the key to author success. Don’t you want to do everything within your control to ensure that each one of those books is the best possible product you have to offer? Of course you do. An editor offers you valuable insight regarding continuity, flow, plot, character development, grammar, punctuation, and spelling. The time to find and fix an issue with your story isn’t after reader upon reader points it out in online reviews or when refund requests start to add up. Spend the money on a professional edit.

Editing your own work is challenging.

Writing and editing are two different mindsets. As a writer, you tend to see on the page or on the screen what needs to be there to portray the mental picture you have in your mind. Unfortunately, that’s not necessarily what’s on the page or on the screen. An editor lets you focus on what you do best—writing—while she or he does what she or he does best—editing. As a team, you publish a novel that has readers talking about the right things regarding your story. Spend the money on a professional edit.

You can’t rely on a grammar and/or spell checker.

No matter the hype or sales pitch, a checker is not a substitute for professional editing. Most checkers are geared toward business writing, are programmed with hard and fast rules, and won’t recognize literary style or voice. An editor is not only trained to see errors most people miss, but she or he is skilled at helping you craft your prose and enhance your style to ensure a reader can’t put your novel down, literally or figuratively. Spend the money on a professional edit.

An editor is more than just an extra eye, grammar nazi, etc.

She or he is your partner in crime. Yes, an editor drives you crazy by highlighting grammar and syntax errors, pointing out continuity issues, and suggesting plot and character development enhancements. But an editor also emotionally supports you and your style, your voice, and your vision. Her or his suggestions are designed solely to improve your manuscript. And, with every subsequent novel, your relationship becomes a well-oiled machine that produces fiction that gathers more readers and makes more money! Spend the money on a professional edit.

What have you got to lose? Other than readers and sales…

Write on!