Books in progress litter my desk. As I revise manuscripts, there are certain words I watch for. When I see them I ask, “Who cares and who needs it?”
Here are some of those watch words and cautions:
1. Sentences that begin with “And…” (It’s not that it’s wrong or bad, but it’s often not necessary.)
2. Sentences that begin with “And then…” Sentences are sequences and usually work without this tip to the reader.
3. He felt, she heard, he sensed, she saw… Just describe the scene. Not “She saw a crocodile rise from the swamp.” Instead, “A crocodile rose from the swamp.”
4. Was. This crops up a lot in most writers’ first drafts. “She was fighting,” becomes “she fought.”
Gerunds are passive and they are not our friends, especially when overused. I don’t use adverbs much, though I don’t ban them. It’s a novel, not a telegram. Besides, I’m suggesting crafty guidelines here, not edicts about what not to do.
5. Look out for: just, own, up, down, so, it. These are words that we add to sentences that sometimes fail to add meaning.
Just surfaces a lot. We can often do without “just.” Or we might use only or merely.
“He sat down in the chair,” becomes “He sat in the chair.”
“So, he murdered the butler,” becomes “He murdered the butler.”
“Their own boat,” becomes “Their boat.”
“It” often replaces the noun you should probably use. “It’s up to you,” could be, “This caper is up to you,” or “The fate of guinea pigs everywhere is up to you.” See how it’s better? I mean, see how specificity improves clarity?
6. Careful of exclamation points that hype excitement that does not exist.
7. Semi-colons have fallen so far out of use that they now stop readers cold. Punctuation should be visible, yet not visible. Punctuation marks are the life-preserver under your seat on the plane. You know it’s there, but you don’t want to pause a moment to think about why it’s there.
8. Use dialogue tags besides “said” sparingly. Let what is said carry the weight of the message.
9. Empty pleasantries are death.
“How are you?”
This trite exchange is what we do every day. In a book, it’s a waste of time. Also note that those four lines possess no conflict. A better way to go would be to answer “How are you?” with “You’re late.”
Or try, “He greeted her at the conference room door with an officious sneer and ushered to her seat without a word.”
If the dialogue isn’t clever or funny, or if the exchange fails to reveal character or advance the plot, skip it and go to the action.
Don’t count on readers’ patience. Tell the story.
10. Everyone watches for run-on sentences. We break those up, of course. Also consider varying sentence length.
Sentence length is not something many readers will register consciously, but lots of short sentences together can feel stilted and staccato. (This device can be used to great effect in an action sequence or to make a point, however.) Many long sentences in a row tire the reader and can feel like a drone.
This problem is easier to recognize when you read your manuscript aloud. If you run out of breath before the end of a sentence, it might be too long. Or you need to do more cardio.
~ Robert Chazz Chute hates to tell anyone what to do. Ever. He’s also a fan of the sentence fragment, so this isn’t about being the grammar police. It’s about helping writers and editors make books more readable. These are guidelines. The only rule is, if it plays, it plays.
FYI, the third book in the Hit Man Series is Hollywood Jesus, Rise of the Divine Assassin. This funny, gripping crime novel launches October 1, 2014. Early feedback says it’s the fastest pace to an adventure since you fell off your bike and got road rash when you were a kid.
The Omnibus will be launched at the same time.