Years ago, I left my career in sales. Why? Well, I was quite possibly the worst salesperson on the planet, so I figured most any other job would be a vast improvement. I loved writing and decided to pursue my passion. I actually got my start as a copy editor, and years of proofreading and editing have given me a different set of eyes that detect details often unseen by the rest of the world.
Wait. Let me clarify.
Just because something is unseen, in no way means it has gone unnoticed. To the untrained, small mistakes can collect in the subconscious. A reader might put a book down and never know exactly why she couldn’t get engaged, or why she felt the text was too confusing, or why she simply just gave up.
Well, as they say, the devil is in the details.
These days I spend a lot of time focusing on the big picture–structure. Why? Structure is where most writers need training. High school and college English does NOT train us how to write a work spanning 60-100,000 words. Don’t believe me? How many novels did you turn in for a grade in college English? Exactly.
Knowing something in theory is a heck of a lot different than the actual execution. Even though I prefer to talk about big picture stuff, today we are going to zoom in and have a refresher on the small stuff.
Years ago, when I ran a traditional critique group, I would see the same mistakes over and over and, yeah, over. These oopses won’t keep us from being published (especially nowadays), but they can be highly distracting for readers. If left uncorrected, our story could become a projectile hurled with great force by a frustrated reader.
I saw these mistakes so many times in critique, I finally made a list and called them my Deadly Sins of Writing. The Deadly Sins are often the first professional hurdle for writers who want to up their game and play with the big boys and girls of fiction. Why? Because formal English classes (high school and college), are there to teach command of the English language, not prepare us for publication in NY.
I’m in no way picking on teachers. It is incumbent upon any writer to learn her craft. To believe college English constitutes proper schooling for commercial fiction is like saying Home Economics is proper training to become a premiere chef. Yet, many new writers believe that because they made good grades in English, they know how to write (Yeah, I’ll confess. I was one of them).
So after a couple of years critiquing fiction, I began to notice a pattern of common errors. These flubs were so distracting that I often found I couldn’t even GET to critiquing plot, character, or voice. Thus, I wrote out my Deadly Sins as a reference. I believe that if a writer can eradicate most or all of these types of errors, then he will leave the reader with a clearer view of the story.
Today we are only going to go over three. Why? Because most of us haven’t had formal grammar since that awful experience with sentence diagramming back in the eighth grade. And while I could just list the Sins, I believe it will be more helpful if you understand WHY these errors can be so detrimental to even the best of stories.
Deadly Sin #1
Was Clusters— There is nothing wrong with using being verbs (am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been, —Remember them?). But, they do tend to have a nasty habit of flocking together. A couple of being verbs are all right. But, if there are 42 on one page? You might have a problem…or an infestation.
Was often acts as a screaming beacon directing me, the editor, to places where the writing could be tightened. Was can also lead you, the writer, into dangerous passive voice waters so beware.
The door was kicked in by the officers. (Passive)
The officers kicked in the door. (Active)
Passive voice will confuse a reader, so make sure your writing is as active as possible.
Deadly Sin #2
Overuse of “ing” Whether as Gerunds or Participles—First, a quick review for those of us who have slept since our last grammar class. A gerund is a verb used as a noun—i.e. reading glasses. Participles are often used with a helping verb to show progression (also called progressive verbs)—i.e. I am walking to the car.
***I have left Point A and have not quite reached Point B. Therefore the action is in progress, ergo the term progressive.
There is nothing wrong with using either, but like was, these critters also tend to cluster together. When they do so, they tend to:
a. Create a monotonous pattern
b. Signal places the writing could be made more active.
Joe was walking to the car while smoking a cigarette and thinking about his day. He was wondering if it was all worth the effort. Tired, he pulled out a set of reading glasses. He was scanning the Dear John letter one last time before driving home when a car came barreling out of nowhere heading straight for him.
Don’t laugh. I have seen more than my fair share of similar passages. Technically, nothing is incorrect. Yet, the pattern of ing ing ing ing ing creates a monotony that can diminish the literary effect.
Deadly Sin #3
Modifier overload. Ever heard the term less is more? The same holds true in writing. Why? WHEN YOU MODIFY EVERYTHING YOU MODIFY NOTHING (Yes, I was being a smarty pants with the all caps). The reader can get so bogged down in lovely similes and metaphors that he forgets the original point of the story, and that is bad.
Have you ever been to a lecture where the speaker’s voice is flat, and nothing is emphasized? Think of Ben Stein, the guy who does the eye drop commercials.
Now think of Billy Mays, the guy who made Oxy Clean famous. HE STRESSED ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING!!!! By the end of the commercial, the audience needed a nap…or a drink.
Modifiers can make beautiful writing that transports us and makes us part of an entirely different world.
It can make us feel like we’re trapped in that nightmare where we never really graduated high school, and have been forced to repeat Sophomore-Level English if we want our college degree to be valid. Jane Eyre. Enough said.
Just remember some simple rules of thumb. Adverbs are almost always a no-no. Why use window dressing on an inferior verb if there is a superior verb that can take its place?
He walked quickly across the room.
He strode across the room.
She jumped quickly. Hmm….as opposed to jumping slowly?
Are all adverbs evil? No. Just the redundant ones. If we want to denote a quality that is NOT inherent in the verb’s definition, then adverbs can be wonderful.
She whispered conspiratorially.
As far as adjectives, similes, and metaphors? Use good judgment. Don’t be the Oxy Clean guy. Have a fellow writer look at your work and see which ones might be weakening your story. Or, take a highlighter and strike through all the modifiers, and see how many there are, and how many can go. Heck, if they are really good, you can use them later. I promise.
Grammar is not a whole lot of fun for most people, but it is necessary to understand it as part of understanding the craft. And you are going to make mistakes. These lessons are a critical part of learning. Good writing comes from wisdom, and wisdom comes from experience. Experience comes from writing some real crap. Sloppy technique, bad grammar, and poor sentence construction can cling to your writing like a dirty film that obscures story and characters. Clean up your writing so your stories can shine.
What are some of your pet peeves? What will make you toss a book across the room? Do you love a lot of detail or very little detail? Why?
I love hearing from you! And to prove it and show my love, for the month of August, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.
Last Week’s Winner–Paul Anthony Shortt
Please send 1250 word Word document to kristen at kristen lamb dot org.
I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of August I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!
Note: I am keeping all the names for a final GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (To be announced) OR a blog diagnostic. I look at your blog and give feedback to improve it. For now, I will draw weekly for 5 page edit, monthly for 15 page edit.
In the meantime, I hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . Both books are ON SALE for $4.99!!!! And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in th biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left over to write more great books! I am here to change your approach, not your personality.