Saturday, May 10, 2014

Write Club: Phrases to Avoid like the Devil

Hey y'all.  So I've done my fair share of reading/listening to noobish stories.  It's gotten to the point where I like reading off stories just so that I can correct them.  Maybe it's a neurological issue or something.  In any case, one of the signs of a noobish writer is to have bad narrative.  The thing about narrative is that there are so many ways to get it right, and so many more to get it wrong.  So the only way to really advise anyone is to go through little issues that maybe not everyone has in common.

However, there are several phrases that many new writers write, almost by accident.  It happens, mainly because the writer is getting out whatever words are trapped in his head, and maybe sounding a bit too vocal or casual, or trying too hard to be fancy.  Editing is very important in making sure you aren't using too many or awkward words, and by doing an editing run after you write instead of during, you can get your inspiration out without worrying about running out of inspiration.

So here, let me list a few of the common phrases that newer writers tend to rely a little too much on.  Some of these phrases are very bad.  Others are okay, but simply overused and obvious.  In either case, they need to be dodged.

-- That really hurt.

This is a phrase that really only should be used by your character, not by you.  Characters each have a unique way of speaking, and aren't writing a novel with their words, so they don't have to adhere to any standards they don't want to.  You, dear writer, must.

One of those ways is to not state something that is obvious.  If your character is hurt, don't say it.  Say that he got hit by a truck, or that he stubbed his toe, or describe how the psychic attack from the telepathic reptile did weird things to his head.  Any of those things can hurt, and the readers can imagine it for themselves.  Don't say something the reader already knows.  The very point of them reading your book is for them to put new, entertaining information in their heads.

-- It smelled like...

This one isn't so bad.  It's even fine in certain circumstances, particularly when a character is talking.  Trouble is, it's the most obvious way of saying that a room or item has a smell.  There are much better ways to describe a scent.

Like a wall of rotting meat, a smell hit Jack's nose and alerted to the presence of zombies.

Lilac filled the air.

The room, rank with memories and the scent of old scotch, held many a precious treasure.

She sniffed.  "Mmm....blueberry!"

In short, there are forty bajillion ways to describe a smell.  It's one of those room details, such as wall color or what items are around.  Setting details can come across as choppy when you stop everything and just start laying them out there for paragraphs.  Either blend them with the narrative or create good transitions to where your readers don't notice that they're suddenly reading a diatribe about a set of expensive vases.

-- she introduced herself.

I don't mean that you shouldn't say something like "she twirled her hair as she introduced herself" -- something where you attach an action to a spoken statement.  That's fine.  What I mean is, if you have a girl introduce herself, don't say it.

"Hello, my name is Samantha." she smiled as she introduced herself.

No.  Just no.  The reader already knows she's doing an introduction.  Don't state it.  Also, avoid too many words.  When you start going on and on in a sentence, trying to describe something, chances are you're trying too hard.

-- He prepared himself for what was coming next.

There is telling too much, and then there's not telling enough.  This sentence tells the reader nothing about a person, his surroundings, or his activities.  Thing is "prepare" is so generic a word that unless you're talking about a specific occupation or activity, no one can know what you mean by it.  Does it mean steeling himself?  Packing some backs?  Doing some stretches?  We don't know unless you say, and "prepare" doesn't do the trick.

-- he instructed.

Again, I mean this when used in the middle of a speaking sentence.

"Put part XKG1 into the slot." he instructed.

Yeah, that.  Don't do it.  The reader knows it's an instruction already.  Also, I was doing some reading, and apparently editors don't like it when you use words like "responded", "inquired", "questioned", "whined" or other fancy words that replace "said" and "asked".  "Spoke" is probably okay, but apparently this is just an area editors don't like fancy words.  They prefer the emotion or tone to be implied by the sentence.

-- It changed his life forever/changing fate/changing destiny.

This isn't a literature rule, but if you use this sentence, I hate you.  It's the biggest cliche atop all cliches, like the one cliche to rule them all or the cliched cherry on top of the cliched sundae.  THAT MEANS YOU, TEEN FICTION WRITERS.  Do you know how many books I have to put up with some crap on the back about "changing her life forever" or "changing her fate"?  Too dang many.  Adult fiction has figured out that it's a cliche (most of it, anyway), so you can figure it out too.

The entire point of destiny (positive connotations) and fate (negative connotations) is that they cannot be changed.  If someone is capable of changing fate, then whatever they were expecting doesn't meet the real definition of fate anyway.  It's basically them overcoming their own perceptions.  You can argue all you want to about destiny in real life, but destiny in a fiction book is whatever you determine for your characters.  It's not "changing destiny" for you to make them do something at the end of the book.  It just means you're fating them to what you think they want.

As for this, "it changed his life forever" nonsense, lots of things change our lives forever.  Buying new, better shoes'll do it.  Buying a truck instead of a car'll do it.  Heck, buying more expensive brands of toilet paper has changed my life forever, because now I know that good toilet paper is worth paying a little more.  What? That's a forever change.

And don't even get me started on "his life will never be the same".

-- Spectacularly

Another word with a lot of syllables that means nothing.  The fireworks spectacularly flew up?  The man ran spectacularly?  It's not exactly a word that conveys a lot of information to your reader.  To be fair, not a lot of noobs use this particular word.  However, they may at times use other likewise meaningless words: "stupendously", "magnificently", "preposteriously".  These words have meaning in short form, but just as soon as you add the "ly" they lose all significance.

This is one of those things that you think you don't do, but then you catch in editing.  Watch out.

-- Barely able to be heard.

Words like these hurt me.  Is it all that difficult to write "barely audible"?  Sometimes this happens simply because a writer is writing stream of consciousness, and they don't automatically realize that they're saying something in an overly complex way.

Reduction in editing is a very important thing.  You take the words that don't work and you backspace them out.  That is, you cut the extraneous.  When you take something and describe it with lots of words because you feel you need to explain a lot just so your readers catch what you mean, it becomes a lot of loud ranting. I mean, long descriptions waste time.  It's like your readers just want to know what happens next in your story but you have to makes sure they know what you're saying because you can't get the right words out.  As in, a good vocabulary keeps things moving.

Get my point?

Here's an editing trick.  Whenever you come across a sentence in your writing that just doesn't sound right, remove extra words.  Replace them with shorter phrases.  Like these examples here:

Turn: She knew it had something to do with cows. 
Into: She knew it was a bovine matter.

Turn: He kept his eye on the shark the entire time it took to swim around it.
Into: He dodged the shark, drifting around it with a careful eye.

Turn: The sword was long and heavy.
Into: The long, heavy sword pierced its target.

Turn: The bank is far away from the house.
Into: Just thinking about the distant bank made Hank's feet ache.

Note that in the examples (besides the first), extra information is added with the corrections.  Sometimes when you shorten the amount of words, you don't have a sentence left.  Like my third example, I had to add the idea of a target.  In the fourth, a character and his emotion are added in.  So even though I used fewer words to get across the idea of a far off bank -- "distant bank" -- I ended up using more words that conveyed additional information.

Granted, I can see people taking this advice and going too far with it, maybe by using too complicated words or rambling on with purple prose, but it's generally a nice way to spice up your narrative when you suddenly get the feeling that it's really boring.

And now the big one.

-- he was/had/could have...

Past tense.  PAST TENSE.  It only belongs when you're talking about the past, and even sometimes then you've got to pep it up and make people feel the action.  When a writer uses present tense, they are showing that whatever is happening is happening right now, making things feel more tense.  When a writer uses past tense out of place, it brings the pace to a crawl and turns what could be a competent action scene into a dull reflection over what moves were used to defeat which bad guy.

This happens a lot, probably because past tense is acceptable in nonfiction.  In histories and biographies it's particularly appropriate.  Because nonfiction is there to inform more than it entertains, people would rather read the slower pace of past tense so that they can understand the topic at hand.  In fact, certain people (*raises hand*) get jolted out of nonfiction very quickly when they attempt to put in silly jokes or obscure the truth for entertainment value.

But in the realm of fiction, where my posts refer, using past tense to describe present action is bad.  Very bad.  Here's a list of things you don't do.

He was going to the show.
She could have gone to the party.
The dog had a bowl in its mouth.


He went to the show.
She could go to the party.
The dog held a bowl in its mouth.

Of course, I'm definitely not talking about character dialogue.  Your characters can use whatever grammar or tense they want, provided the readers understand what's going on.  Also, when you're talking about something that happened in the past, it's kinda weird to use present tense unless it's a full on flashback.

Basically, past tense is like a slower gear on your car.  You go to it at times, but when you want to go places, you crank up the gear.

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