19 September 2015

Mystery Missteps

by John M. Floyd

Over the past few weeks, I've finished three mystery-writing projects: a 7500-word short story, a 110-page screenplay, and a 90,000-word collection of thirty of my stories. The short story will be submitted soon to one of the mystery magazines, the collection is scheduled to be released by my publisher next year, and the screenplay will probably be used to prop up a table leg--but all three were great fun to put together. What wasn't fun was proofreading my late-to-final drafts. I tend to make silly mistakes when I write, and the sheer volume of those mistakes gave me the idea for this column, which will probably contain even more mistakes. Believe me, I try to find and correct these before they go out into the world, but still . . .

Thorns in my side
Here are some writing errors (some minor, some not-so) that show up a lot in my fiction manuscripts:

Pet phrases. For some reason I apparently enjoy writing things like "she narrowed her eyes," "he scratched his chin," "she plopped into a chair," "his face darkened," etc.--there are a couple dozen of these--and I find myself using them over and over. Why? Who knows. My characters also seem to like sighing, staring, shrugging, and turning. Especially turning. They turn and leave, turn to reply, turn and look out the window, turn to answer the phone, and so on. It's the kind of repetition that annoys me when I discover it in my drafts, and if I left it in it would certainly annoy editors and readers. (Actually, if it bothers the editors it'll never get a chance to bother the readers.)

Overuse of dashes. I love dashes. Maybe because it's hard to use one improperly: under the right conditions they can be substituted for semicolons, colons, parentheses, and almost anything else. I use them often for asides--like this--and I also like the notion of "interrupted speech" (because real people interrupt each other all the time when they talk), and dashes are an effective sentence-ending way to indicate that. Even so, too much of anything is not a good thing.

Cliches. Boy do I like cliches. My excuse, I think, is that I use so many in real life it's only natural to want to put them into my writing as well. But if it's not in dialogue, a cliche probably doesn't belong in the story. When/if I come to my senses, I try to locate them and weed them out.

Backward apostrophes. This error occurs only when using certain fonts, but in Times New Roman, an apostrophe before something like em (Round 'em up and cuff 'em) winds up turned in the wrong direction--which looks ridiculous. To correct it, I type a letter immediately before it, then put in the apostrophe, then delete the preceding letter. A good way to remember it: type th'em and then delete the "th."

Too many combined words. This is something else I love, probably because it speeds up the pace. Examples: doublecheck, halfwit, ballplayer, dumptruck, kindhearted, mothership, workboots, overanalyze, mumbojumbo, coattails, thunderclap--and especially when they're used as adjectives, like smalltown politics or livingroom furniture or quartermile run. But I have to be careful not to do it when it really shouldn't be done (bluejeans, divingboard, machinegunfire, etc.). Being innovative goes only so far.

Extra spaces between words. This is pure carelessness. They're hard to catch, and they're distracting if you don't. If, for instance, you prefer to put only one space after a period, you should be consistent and do it every time.

Repetition. Especially in early drafts, I repeat so many things it's hard to believe: ideas, words, phrases (see "pet phrases," above), even locations and character names. In my defense, I think some of this comes from trying to make things extremely clear to the reader--but the truth is, today's readers are smart enough not to require everything spelled out for them in detail, or--to use another cliche--to have writers beat them over the head with something in order for them to understand it. Cutting out repetition is a large part of my self-editing process. It becomes even more important when putting previously published stores together in a collection, because those stories, when first written, weren't expected to ever be read back-to-back with other stories.

Omitted quotation marks (usually close quotes). More carelessness.

Using a for an, and vice versa. Why do I encounter this so often in late drafts, since I truly do know when to use one and when to use the other? Probably because I've gone back and changed things in the manuscript, and when I happen to change a noun that doesn't begin with a vowel sound to one that does, etc., I might've unintentionally created an "a vs. an" error.

Thorn removals
Some of the missteps I seem to have gotten better at avoiding, over the years:

Overuse of semicolons. I think semicolons are a great way to divide two complete sentences that are too closely related to be separated by the finality of a period. But semicolons do look a bit formal in genre fiction (certainly in dialogue), and too many of them can be distracting. These days, I go through my manuscripts-in-progress and try to turn most of my semicoloned sentences into two separate sentences, or add a "comma followed by an and," or substitute one of those overused dashes. But--just shoot me--I still like semicolons.

Too many "ly" adverbs. There's always been a difference of opinion as to whether this is even a problem, but most writers agree that it's better to use stronger verbs than to have to prop them up with modifiers.

Too many back-and-forth lines of dialogue without identifying the speaker. The reason I don't commit this error as often as I used to, I think, is that it irritates me so to find it in stories/books that I read. Nothing is more maddening to a reader than having to count lines backward to find out who's saying what.

Too many italics. Thank God I'm finally beginning to bring this weakness under control. You don't always need to put emphasis on a word, or italicize an unspoken thought; sometimes it's obvious from the way the sentence or paragraph is written. (Oh no, she thought, flattening her back against the wall. Did anyone see me?)

Overuse of ellipses. Unless you're hesitating . . . and even if you are . . . too many of these can become bothersome.

Unnecessary exclamation points. I almost never use an exclamation point anymore. When I do, it's in dialogue, and it has to be something like Your socks are on fire! or Look out, it's a werewolf!

Overuse of dialect. There's a fine line here. Some writers feel that any use of dialect is overuse. I maintain that using too many misspelled words to convey dialect can be a mistake. Sho nuff.

POV switches. These still sneak through at times, especially in stories with third-person-limited viewpoint. (Example: Judy looked at him, and her face turned red. If we're in Judy's POV, she can't see her own face turn red, even though she might "feel her face grow warm.") Other switches might include, in a third-person-multiple story, two characters having a conversation and jumping from one's POV to the other's too abruptly, without something like a scene break in between.


Not that it matters, but here are some things I find fairly easy to write, probably because I like them so much: dialogue, humor, plot twists, weird characters, action scenes, and surprise endings.

Things I find hard to write, probably because I don't like them much: descriptions of people and places, backstory, exposition, unspoken thoughts, flashbacks, and symbolism. I realize how necessary these can be, and I hope I'm getting better at them, but for me they require a lot of effort.

What are your strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes? What are some writing errors that constantly seem to find their way into your stories and novels even though you know better? Which ones bother you the most when you encounter them in the writing of others?

Whatever they are, here's to better mysteries and fewer (mys?)steps. For all of us.


  1. Best of luck with all your projects. That is a good checklist of catchable errors.
    Mine tend to be spelling and hyphens. I can't seem to convince myself that the latter are necessary.

  2. Thanks, Janice. I make plenty of those errors too. I confess that my favorite use of hyphens is to connect multiple-word adjectives like three-alarm fire, one-horse town, high-risk activity, etc. But at least we don't have to worry about dividing words in the wrong places, as we did in the typewriter days.

  3. I use dashes all the time. One thing I've caught myself doing a few times - and I'm trying to stop that (not the dashes, note the continuing use of dashes) - is coming up with a sweet little phrase, using it, and then using it again in the same damn story! Way to show what a wide imagination I have, isn't it?

    Meanwhile, congratulations on your story, screenplay and collection. Woo-hoo!

  4. John, when I teach dialogue to my students, I use "The Rule of 4" - that is, I tell them that where there are only two speakers, every 4th piece of dialogue needs to have a speech tag or beat, to remind the reader who is speaking. I follow this diligently myself.
    So many good point in this post! (says she, using an unnecessary exclamation point)

  5. John, I'd say, "Good luck on all those projects," but I don't think your success is based on luck. I believe it's a combination of talent and craft.

    Today's blog is a great check list and I will share it. Personally, my most common offenses are overuse of two words which I delete on editing--just and, like yours, my characters turn too often.

  6. Thanks, Eve. As for those cute little phrases, it's bad enough to reuse them in the same story (I do it a lot), but it's REALLY bad when you combine a bunch of stories into a collection of previously published tales and find those phrases scattered throughout. I use "search" to find and correct some of them, but I have so darn many little phrases that I like . . .

    Melodie, I've never heard it stated as a rule, but I too try to insert some kind of speaker tag in every fourth or fifth line of dialogue. I should also mention that when writing emails I happily violate almost every point I made in this column--especially regarding exclamation points!!!!

  7. Like Eve, I find that with each story I write, I have a different pet phrase or unusual word that I use repeatedly. I think when I first write it, it sticks in my mind because I liked how it sounded, so then I inadvertently use it over and over.

    As to cliches, while I agree it's good to try to avoid them, people do talk in cliches. And they think in cliches. So I wouldn't limit their use to dialogue. Your exposition is being told from the point of view of your main character, so these are your main character's thoughts. Main characters can think in cliches too. At least occasionally.

  8. Fran, you are too kind. As for these current projects, the screenplay was more of a lark than anything else--those are SO different, in terms of both format and process, but they're great fun. And even when I write regular stories, I find myself thinking of images on a screen anyhow, so I had a really good time coming up with the script. It's sort of a mystery/western.

    YES, I too often type two words together, especially and and or the the, etc. I probably just need to pay more attention to what I'm doing.

  9. Good point, Barb, on the (over)use of cliches. I agree that they can and should be used in both internal monologue and real dialogue--I just catch myself using too many in the narrative of the story. It probably all boils down to the fact that cliches are almost always dated and (too) familiar, and everyone likes originality in a piece of writing.

  10. Thank you for standing up for semicolons! So many people disparage them these days; some editors won't tolerate them at all. I don't see any advantage to making our language less flexible by eliminating a concise, long-established way of showing that two clauses are closely related. I've heard some writers argue that we should avoid semicolons because they intimidate people who don't know how to use them, but I can't see dumbing down the language because some people aren't willing to learn a few very simple rules. (Strunk and White provide a good defense of semicolons--in the third edition, it's under Rule 5 in Elementary Rules of Usage.)

    Like most writers, I have certain words and phrases that I use far too often--just, well, that, sort of, for a moment, actually, and a host of others. My low-tech approach to trying to solve this problem is to keep a list on an index card. During final editing, I take out the index card and go through the manuscript one more time, searching for those words and phrases and cutting them whenever possible.

  11. Bonnie, that sounds like a good system--sort of a pre-flight checklist where you find and adjust the things that might cause you to crash. And your list of overused words match my own, especially "for a moment" and "actually."

    As for semicolons, I think I've mentioned before that one of the editors of The New Yorker once said that if he finds a correctly-used semicolon on the first page of a submitted manuscript, he will then read the entire story. Almost certainly a lie, but it does indicate that semicolons are often INcorrectly used.

  12. Interrupting, that's the pet peeve of my life nowadays because the husband & I are basically together 24/7 & neither of us is polite enough to wait our turn to speak. We are both working on it & I do try not to interrupt when I'm talking to anyone other than him.

    Head-hopping supposedly is a no-no, but Carson McCullers did it very well to the point where it was almost invisible. I think I've read everything she ever published.

  13. Liz, I need to put both of you in my stories. I love for my characters to interrupt each other.

    Head-hopping is, as you said, sometimes a no-no, but it's also acceptable when the author knows what he or she is doing. I think the first time I became aware of it being done well was in McMurtry's Lonesome Dove, many years ago. Gus and Call and their gang were always abruptly switching POVs back and forth, with no intervening chapters or scene breaks, and it caused no problems at all for the reader (or at least for this reader). But I've heard it called a "don't-try-this-at-home" thing; it can work, but only in capable hands.

  14. Several days ago, I commented I picked up a Writers Digest book from Amazon’s bargain bin offering advice on writing. Following SleuthSayers guidelines, I won’t mention the author (and I see at least three other books of the same title), but after only two chapters, I was aghast.

    The author, apparently a professor, criticizes ‘old’ writing and promotes new, fresh, modern writing: Don’t hesitate to break old-fashioned rules.

    Fair enough, but while calling the reader ‘dude’ (really!), he goes on to recommend ditching obsolete punctuation like colons, semicolons, and parentheses. Even that’s tolerable under the right circumstances, but he doesn’t like verbs. Instead. He loves. Incomplete sentences. Sentence fragments, good. Complete sentences, bad. Obsolete. Old fashioned. So yesteryear.

    Clearly this expert is so tone deaf, he doesn’t realize the reader has to pause, re-parse the words, and try to figure out what the writer is trying to say. Ironically his attempts to be modern make his book sound dated.

    As you can tell, I still haven’t got that out of my system, John.

  15. Leigh, I think I'm beginning to see why that WD book was in the bargain bin. Seriously, I own dozens and dozens of books about writing, style, etc.--a few of them are excellent, most are so-so, and a few are absolutely pitiful. All I can say is, I'm not quite ready to ditch my colons, semicolons, and parentheses, and while I do like sentence fragments, I'd also like to keep some verbs around. I mean, really, dude.


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