Author, Editor, Publisher, Coach

Tag: Eloquent Prose (Page 3 of 3)

Dialogue Tags

I’ve been reviewing early submissions to our Evolved Publishing Short Story Contest.  Several issues have jumped out at me—all the usual stuff I deal with as an editor.  However, one of the most prevalent problems affecting many of the submissions thus far relates to one of the most important elements of any story: Poor Dialogue Construction.

  The primary culprit is the use of heavy, awkward “tags” on the dialogue.  A secondary culprit is not knowing how to SHOW a character engaged in dialogue, versus simply TELLING the reader what’s been said.

As I’ve written at some length on this before, I’ll not try to reinvent the wheel here.  Instead, I shall point you to two articles I posted on this very subject.  Please read them in order:

Dialogue Tags vs. Action Leads/Inserts – Part 1

Dialogue Tags vs. Action Leads/Inserts – Part 2

‘Til next time, and as always, remember: To write well, you must work hard.  To succeed in this tough gig, you mustn’t be lazy (or discouraged).


Wordiness Is Not a Style – Part 1

Many writers fall into the trap of writing as they speak.  For 99.943999876984% of us (I rounded it off), this is a bad idea.  Why?  Just listen to a conversation.  I mean really listen.

How disjointed is it?  How often do the speakers pause not as a function of proper English, but to gather their thoughts?  When they resume, how often do they repeat themselves, drift down another track, or cut the logical thread completely?  How many four-letter words do they use?  How often do they toss in one of the worst four-letter words of all time: “like?”

Listen to anyone under the age of twenty-five, and you’ll likely hear them throwing around the L-bomb like monkeys in a poop fight.  Many people toss in a “you know” every eight words or so, just to make sure that… well, you know.  Lazy “fillers” function as bookmarks in speech—we save our spot so that, once our brains catch up with our mouths, we can pick up where we left off.  Even then, we often get it “wrong” from a grammatical perspective—some of us more than others.

We also tend to speak in a tight, limited vocabulary—one that belies our knowledge of the language.  We rarely stretch ourselves as speakers, yet we must stretch ourselves as writers.  We must also not rely, as we do when speaking, on what I call the “3 R’s” of wordiness: rambling, repetition and redundancy.

A strong narrative is a tight narrative.  Do not confuse lazy, meandering construction with a conversational style.  Keeping it simple is fine… right up until you oversimplify.

This is just a primer for a couple of future posts (not a lot of time today), but I want to set the table because I’ve been seeing a bunch of—and I mean a TON of—wordy construction in my reading material lately.

Even seasoned pros have been guilty.  Why?  Are their editors afraid of offending their cash cows?  Are the publishers taking too much for granted with respect to their superstar authors?  I’m an editor, but I’m also a writer, and as a writer, I would want my editors to catch those pesky problems that slip past me.  Otherwise, what’s the point of having an editor?

I’ll end for now with this one big hint: If you have a sentence structured like the one below (good grief, I’ve been seeing this a lot), tighten it up.  Please.

There was an editor that missed many of the author’s wordy sentences.

Preferred: The author’s editor missed many wordy sentences.

I dropped it from 12 words to 7—a reduction of 42% in a single sentence.  Your “TRIGGERS” (search your manuscript for these) are the following phrases: there was, there were, I/he/she/it was, they were.  I’ll bet you a quarter to your nickel that a good number of those appear in wordy sentences just begging you to take a scalpel to them.  Those that don’t are likely weak and blasé, screaming out for a stronger, evocative verb.

‘Til next time, and as always, remember: To write well, you must work hard.  To succeed in this tough gig, you mustn’t be lazy (or discouraged).

And don’t miss these follow-up articles:

Wordiness Is Not a Style – Part 2

Wordiness Is Not a Style – Part 3


Rarely Does a Cart Lead the Horse to Good Effect

When I work with my editing clients, I often implore them to adhere to this commandment of effective writing: Keep it strong and direct. In other words: Let the horse lead the cart.

Standard sentence structure is standard for good reason.  It works.  It relates back to how we all learn to read in the first place.  More than that, however, it plays to our innate psychological response to the written word.

Somebody does something, perhaps to someone/something else, possibly in a certain way or in a particular setting.  Thus, the standard sentence structure: Subject, Action, Object.

We often dress that up a bit, adding a descriptive or two, character motivation, setting—the how, why, when and where of it.  Nonetheless, we typically sandwich the action between the subject committing the act and the object on whom the act is committed—in that order.

We can mix it up on occasion, to break up the rhythm and pace of the prose (preventing the “Lullaby Effect”), or to provide emphasis—a punch—to a particular segment.  Yet those exceptions work in large part because they stand out from the rule that guides most of our writing.  If those exceptions become the rule of your prose, they lose their effectiveness, their panache.  The writing then strikes the reader as a sloppy, choppy, stop-and-start, out-of-order mess.

I offer this example from one of my clients (names changed to protect the not-so-innocent).

ORIGINAL (Bad): Against snow clouds that hid the afternoon sun, Albert saw a gray cliff’s distant summit. A pine forest sprang dark from the foreground. Promising abundance, the forest embraced the nomadic hunters.  ver fallen log’s rough bark, slowly turning white, red deer leapt.

REVISED (Good – 1st Alternative): The gray cliff of a distant summit rose against snow clouds that hid the afternoon sun. A pine forest sprang dark from the foreground. The forest embraced the nomadic hunters and promised abundance. Red deer leapt over the rough, whitened bark of a fallen log.


1. I reordered the first sentence, placing the horse firmly before the cart.
2. I eliminated the “Albert saw” reference. This is not only TELLING (as opposed to SHOWING), but it is unnecessary given that we’re in Albert’s POV in this segment.
3. I left the second sentence unchanged.
4. I reordered the third sentence. It’s generally bad form to begin a sentence with an Infinite Verb Phrase (“Promising abundance”). Think of it as an act without an actor.
5. I reordered the final sentence.
6. The following alternative also works. It’s a matter of stylistic preference, and of which pace works better at that specific point in the story.

REVISED (Good – 2nd Alternative – slightly different pacing): The gray cliff of a distant summit rose against snow clouds that hid the afternoon sun.  A pine forest sprang dark from the foreground, embracing the nomadic hunters and promising abundance.  Red deer leapt over the rough, whitened bark of a fallen log.

In the example below, culled from the same story, the author and I agree to violate the rule in the final, underlined segment.

EXCEPTION: Every animal cast its nose upward. They jittered and hesitated, until survival instinct drove them to bolt for safety within the trees to the east. In the forest to the west, and emitting a foul, warning stench, a most deadly predator approached.

This works because of the manner in which the suspense builds throughout the paragraph, and the way in which the final segment reveals the cause of that tension.  The author builds the suspense, causes the reader to anticipate with some anxiety the revelation.

Absent a final revelation that packs a punch (the literary device we call “Tension”), this structure would not work.  In that case, stick with standard structure.  If you try to force it, to create high tension where none exists simply by restructuring your sentences, you will come off as melodramatic, cheesy and amateurish.

‘Til next time, and as always, remember: To write well, you must work hard.  To succeed in this tough gig, you mustn’t be lazy (or discouraged).


I often awake in the middle of the night, or first thing in the morning, with my brain ablaze with new ideas about how to advance a piece I’m working on. Tick-tock goes the clock. Snore, snore, and snore some more. And pow! I have it—the next step in my story.

The subconscious mind works even as our bodies rest, a point on which Sarah Maurer elaborates in “Zen & the Science of Effortless Prose,” an article in the May/June 2011 issue of Writer’s Digest.

If you’re a writer, you already know this, of course. Yet the point of the article by Ms. Maurer is not just to explain that it happens, but to encourage all of us to promote the process—to feed it. If you’re willing to plant a seed, and then walk away from it, the seed may well take root when you least expect. Such as when you’re sleeping, as it does with me.

Those writers who claim to work “on the clock” fascinate me. They punch in at 8:00 am, for example, and write until noon, and then move on to other pursuits. It amazes me because, no matter how determined I may be, I cannot pull that off. For me, writing requires a flash of inspiration. I may be able to prod it a bit, but just as often, I’ll end up staring at the screen—soon distracted and on to other things.

On the other hand, when an idea hits me, an itching, burning need to sit at the computer and punch out the story, I may end up writing for hours. 1,500 words? Easy. 2,000 words? Probably. 3,000 words? Occasionally. 5,000 words? It happens.

What fascinates me most is how often I start that process fresh from bed, with my brain on fire after doing so much of the heavy lifting while I slept.

Thank you, brain.

Returning to the Writer’s Digest article by Sarah Maurer, she and her interviewees offer suggestions on how to promote that process. Read it. Take the suggestions (indeed, take the entire premise) to heart. It works, and you must take advantage of every opportunity.

The brain remains the last frontier in human physiology. Be bold, and explore just a fraction more of what it offers.

As you prepare to settle down for the night, think about your novel/memoir/short story/poem/article. What has held you up? What is it that needs fixing? Focus not on the solutions, but the problems.

Then, lie down. Go to sleep. You’ve planted the seed. Now let your brain do the hard work while you rest.

‘Til next time, and as always, remember: To write well, you must work hard. To succeed in this tough gig, you mustn’t be lazy (or discouraged).

A Supreme Lazy Word: “Very”

I recently discussed the problem of lazy/weak/overused words with a couple of my editing clients.  One that has always threatened to make my head pop like a thirteen-year-old’s week-old zit is the useless “very.”

Not 48 hours after that last discussion, I came across this tidbit in the May 2011 issue of The Writer, in an article by Erika Dreifus entitled “2 Takes on the Power of a Single Word”:

…novelist Brock Clarke’s entry on “very”:

“Is there a weaker, sadder, more futile

word in the English language than very?

Is there another word as fully guaranteed

to prove the opposite of what its speaker

or writer intends to prove?  Is there

another word that so clearly states, on

the speaker’s or writer’s behalf, ‘I’m not

even going to try to find the right word,’ or

‘No matter how hard I try, I’m not going to

find the right word’?  Is there a less

specific, less helpful, less necessary, less

potent word in our vocabulary?”  Already,

before completing a full page, Clarke has

convinced us: “There is not.”

Can I have an “Amen!”

‘Til next time, and as always, remember: To write well, you must work hard.  To succeed in this tough gig, you mustn’t be lazy (or discouraged).


Those SOB verbs are a real #$%&#$!

The subject of State-Of-Being verbs has occupied a large swath of both my writing and my editing radars lately.

The culprits: Am, is, are, was, were, to be, had been, etc.

These dullards convey no action at all.  They simply are.  They convey a state of being, and nothing more.  Say it with me now: Boring!

Let’s not forget the SOB verbs’ evil cousins, the DIA verbs (Dull InActive verbs).

The culprits: Did, had, went, came, got, took, kept, made, put, had*, etc. *Exception: The necessary use of “had” in Past Perfect Tense.

When employing these verbs, you’re indicating that something is happening, but that something evokes no imagery in the reader’s mind, no sense of action or urgency.  Dull!

The reason these inactive verbs remain so anathema to effective writing relates to one of the primary commandments of writing: SHOW; DON’T TELL.

A reader enjoys most what she sees in her mind’s eye.  If your prose evokes no imagery, if you fail to paint a picture with your words, the reader will never enter the scene as if she were a spectator or, better yet, living vicariously through the characters.

If you fail in this regard, you offer only the fictional equivalent of a lecture.  Bluch!

Therein lurks the danger of SOB and DIA verbs.  Yes, they are occasionally required, but I’ll bet a dollar to your dime that you can eliminate half of them from your manuscript.  You must challenge yourself, and exercise the creativity that drove you to write in the first place.  Evoke an image by using a verb that conveys action.

To do so, you’ll have to rethink your sentence structure—perhaps the entire paragraph.  So what?  Your job—indeed, your covenant with the reader—is to bring her into a fictional world where she can escape her real-worldly burdens for a while.  Why else would she read your story?  Your continued success rests on how well you meet your obligation.

Remember this as you restructure your sentences to make them active: Keep it strong and direct!  No Passive Voice allowed.  Why trade one weak sentence for another?

So get busy searching your document for all those nasty SOB and DIA verbs.  Count them (let your software’s “find” function do that) and list the numbers now, and again after you’re revised the manuscript.  How many did you cut?

I’ll visit the related subject of weak/lazy/overused words in the near future.  Geez!  This writing thing is hard.

‘Til next time, and as always, remember: To write well, you must work hard.  To succeed in this tough gig, you mustn’t be lazy (or discouraged).


Inside Your Characters

I’ve often wondered why one book will grab me by the heart and soul and never let go, while another one fails to do so, even when both stories entertain me.  For me, at least, it’s simple: it’s all about the characters.

The books that endure in my mind long after I’ve read them, which compel me to read them a second time, or a third, or more, are those with characters that capture not just my imagination, but my love.  Or hate.  Yes, I even love—err… hate—some truly nasty bad guys.  (Come on!  So do you.  Tell the truth.)  Yet I need at least one character to feel like family, or a good friend, or the person I always wanted to know.

I’ve read To Kill a Mockingbird four times, not only because Harper Lee crafted this compelling story in such a readable style, but because, at some point, I end up missing Atticus and Scout, and I just have to visit them again.  I’ve read Mark Helprin’s A Soldier of the Great War four times, because I can easily imagine his protagonist, Allessandro Giuliani, as the grandfather I never had.  I just love that old guy.

I’ve read John Steinbeck’s masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath, because I feel for Tom and Ma, for Rose of Sharon and Casey.  I hunger with them, suffer with them through their ungodly ordeal, cry with them at their devastating loss.  Hell, I can even smell them.  I know Tom’s voice, and Ma’s too.  I’ve spoken them aloud as I’ve read some of my favorite exchanges.  I’ve lived them.

Therein hides the secret for every writer: if you want your readers to live your characters, you must first do so.  You must crawl inside their hearts and minds.  You must be them.

Some writers can achieve that silently, in perfect stillness, without ever acting out the characters.  At least, that’s the rumor.  I can’t.  I’ve tried, but there always seems to be a little something missing.  Not until I seclude myself in a quiet spot, where I needn’t worry about making a fool of myself, as I perform the character as though auditioning for the role of a lifetime, can I truly capture the essence of my characters.

If I can’t hear the distinctiveness of a character’s voice, I’ve failed.  If I don’t automatically adopt the body language that would come naturally to the character in a given circumstance, and if I fail to convey that body language on the page, I’ve failed.  If I don’t chuckle when the character would laugh, or my eyes don’t water slightly when the character would cry, or my gut doesn’t clench when the character would fear for his life, I’ve failed.

Not until I live the character do I find those instances where I failed, and so create the remedy.  If I want to punch my readers in the gut and twist them into a whirlwind of emotions, I must first do so to myself.  If I can’t feel it, how can I expect my readers to feel it?

If you’re uncertain of the strength of your characters, try acting them out.  If it sounds silly, that’s because it’s a little embarrassing to you, because you’re not a natural performer.  No worries.  Just find a quiet, secluded place to do it.  Fiction is the art of make-believe anyway, so acting it out should come naturally to you, so long as you don’t have that pesky, embarrassing audience.  Try it.  I guarantee that if you commit to it, you’ll hear and feel things that escape you when merely reading the words.

Come on!  What do you have to lose?

‘Til next time, and as always, remember: To write well, you must work hard.  To succeed in this tough gig, you mustn’t be lazy (or discouraged).


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