Passport to Murder (Down & Out Books), the Bouchercon 2017 anthology edited by John McFetridge, and I participated in the convention’s group signing. As author of the second story in the anthology, I sat at a long table sandwiched between Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine editor Janet Hutchings (author of the first story) and Hilary Davidson (author of the third). Hilary was quite the draw, and adoring fans wanting to spend extra time with her caused the line to back up in front of Janet and me. At some point one of the autograph seekers, whether truly interested or just trying to kill time before talking to Hilary, asked about writing short stories. I said I always start with apostrophes.
That’s one of the many tips, tricks, and techniques I’ve stumbled across during my long literary adventure. Much of my formal education came erratically—a class here, a semester there—and I did not graduate college until I was 48. Though my B.A. is in professional writing, I was writing professionally long before graduation, and most of what I know are things I taught myself along the way.
I agreed to join SleuthSayers shortly before the Toronto Bouchercon, and during the convention, Robert Lopresti suggested I use this forum to discuss my loathing for a particular overused word, a tirade he’s witnessed and written about in Criminal Brief (January 9, 2008):
“Michael hates got with a passion and while I don’t feel that strongly about it, I agree it needs to be considered carefully.”Got is a lazy word used by lazy writers, and it can almost always be replaced by a better, more descriptive word or phrase. Without context, it has so many possible meanings that it has no meaning at all.
For example: “Bob got to his feet” could mean “Bob stood” or it could mean “Bob rolled out of bed and dragged himself across the floor to where he’d left his prosthetic limbs the night before.”
How about “Bob got his new T-shirt dirty,” which could mean “Bob received his new T-shirt dirty” or “he dirtied his new T-shirt while dragging himself across the floor.”
Or, “Bob got his revolver,” which could mean “Bob comprehended the philosophical and moral implications of his reliance on weaponry to mask his underlying fear of diminished masculinity following prostate surgery” or “Bob retrieved his revolver from the nightstand.”
IT WAS, WAS IT?
It was may be the worst two words with which to begin a sentence, and is an even less desirable way to begin a story. Sure, Charles Dickens did it, but few of us are Charles Dickens. It was adds nothing to a sentence, delays getting to the meat of the matter, and is the literary equivalent of a math problem, where “It was a dark and stormy night” translated into a simple math problem becomes:
It = a dark and stormy night.
Solve for It.
Almost every sentence that begins with It was can be revised into a more active, more powerful sentence. Thus, “It was a dark and stormy night when Bob shot the neighbor” could easily become “On a dark and stormy night, Bob shot the neighbor” or “Bob shot the neighbor on a dark and stormy night.”
“It was blood” could become “Blood oozed from the gunshot wound” or “Blood stained his neighbor’s shirt.”
Two t words continue to vex me: that and then.
That is sentence filler, often unnecessary for comprehension.
Remove that and “Bob knew that his neighbor was dead” becomes “Bob knew his neighbor was dead,” an ever-so-slightly better sentence.
Then is more a personal bugaboo than something I see other writers use and abuse. My characters tend to do something and then do something else. Thus: “Bob dropped the gun and then hobbled from the house on his prosthetic feet,” which is better written as “Bob dropped the gun and hobbled from the house on his prosthetic feet.”
I picked up my newest trick from Marvin Kaye, fiction editor of Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, who writes about had in the magazine’s submission guidelines:
“I have a special problem with the word ‘had,’” he writes. “Boiled down, here is what’s wrong with some (not all) compound past tenses—except for fiction written in present tense, our convention is to put things in the simple past. The reader, of course, translates the action into it ‘just happening.’ But as soon as a compound verb is introduced, such as ‘she had already bought the book,’ the action is shoved a little into the past [...]. Thus, in this magazine, unnecessary ‘hads’ are deleted, so that the above would be rendered as ‘she already bought the book,’ which now seems to be ‘just happening.’”Remove had and “Bob had shot his neighbor and had fled the scene” becomes “Bob shot his neighbor and fled the scene.”
THEN IT WAS THAT WHAT HE HAD GOT
Don’t be Bob. Don’t shoot the neighbor on a dark and storm night, especially if your prosthetics will slow your escape.
Eliminate six simple words from your literary vocabulary (or significantly reduce their use)—got, it was, had, that, and then—and you’ll see a significant improvement in your writing. Your stories will be cleaner and your pacing faster.
Oh, and count your apostrophes to determine if your writing is formal or informal.
Malice Domestic, April 27-29. I’ll be moderating “Make It Snappy: Our Agatha Best Short Story Nominees,” where I’ll be trying to ferret out how and why Gretchen Archer, Barb Goffman, Debra H. Goldstein, Gigi Pandian, and Art Taylor wrote their Agatha-nominated short stories. I will also be a panelist for “Precise Prose: Short Crime Fiction” and will be signing copies of the Malice anthology, Mystery Most Geographical, which contains my story “Arroyo.”