30 May 2020

Do's and Don'ts, Wills and Won'ts, Part 1

I had planned a different column for today, but some things I've seen over the past two weeks have steered me in another direction. (As if what I do has any direction to begin with.) In this case, it was a discussion that's been running for some time now at the Short Mystery Fiction forum, which some of you might've seen.

One of the hot topics there has been the craft and so-called "rules" of writing fiction--grammar/style, manuscript formatting, submission guidelines, etc. Something most of us are familiar with, but  something that still raises questions for many writers.

Let me make a confession here: I'm not an editor. I've edited one crime anthology, years ago--it was a lot of fun and a lot of work--and I've edited my own writing and the manuscripts of hundreds of my students in my writing classes . . . but I do no editing for a living and have never edited for a fee and don't plan to, so even though I sometimes (on good days) consider myself a professional writer, I am not a professional editor.

BUT . . . I have blundered into enough holes and cowpatties in this field of fiction writing to remember where they are and point them out. Here are some of them--and yes, many are just matters of personal opinion. Feel free to disagree.

NOTE: I'm starting with the Don'ts that I've always tried to pass along to my writer friends and students. I'll tackle the Do's in my column here next week. (One of the Don'ts ought to be Don't write a 5,000-word blog post, so I'm taking my own advice and splitting this one up into two separate columns.)

First, a map of the landmines:


- Don't overuse adverbs (especially the "ly" kind), don't tell something when you can show it instead, don't use cliches, don't use passive voice when you should use active, don't switch viewpoints too abruptly (there's an adverb!), don't repeat words and phrases, don't use a big word when a small one will do. And so forth.

- Don't overuse adjectives. Three or four in front of a noun is probably too many, like all those speed-bump commas that separate them. Change The hot, dry, dusty, rutted, gravel road to The dusty gravel road. Or just The dusty road. Less is better.

- Don't underline to emphasize text. Italicize instead. Until fairly recently, there were still a few magazines whose guidelines said they prefer underlining, but I think almost all of them now prefer and welcome italics. Remember, underlining was popular when typewriters were the only way to write submittable stories.

- Don't use Grammar Check--or at least don't always believe what it tells you. Fiction writers sometimes do need to splice commas, fragment sentences, split infinitives, and start sentences with a conjunction. (More on that in the Do's section and the "Breaking the Rules" section of next week's column, here.)

- Don't capitalize relationships (mother, mom, father, dad, aunt, uncle) except when addressing those people directly. Yes, Mom, her mother said it's okay for me to go.

- Don't capitalize seasons. I like summer but I love spring.

- Don't say you're nauseous--or at least don't admit it. If you're sick, you're nauseated. If you're making me sick, you're nauseous.

- Don't say feeling badly (even if Trump says it at every opportunity). Unless you have problems with sensation in your fingertips, you're feeling bad, not feeling badly.

- Don't put unspoken thoughts in quotation marks. Italicize instead, or--if it's obvious that it's an unspoken thought--don't do anything to it at all.

- Don't overuse ellipses, parentheses, dashes, or any other marks of punctuation, at least not to the point that they're distracting. That's the biggest problem: snapping the reader out of the story.

- Don't use exclamation points unless the character's pants are on fire.

- Don't use an apostrophe for most plurals, including TVs, DVDs, UFOs, RVs, EMTs, VPs, MRIs, 1980s, and Don'ts. (Unless the apostrophe is needed for clarity, as in Do's.) And for God's sake don't use apostrophes with the plurals of names like the Smiths, the Clarks, etc. Also be careful to position the apostrophe correctly after plural possessives. Wrong: We're going to the Bennett's for dinner. Right: We're going to the Bennetts' for dinner.

- Don't overuse semicolons. I happen to like semicolons--they're perfect when two complete sentences are too closely related to be separated by a period--but editors usually don't like 'em, and I'm trying to cut back to two or three a week. I've found myself using dashes instead, or rewording the text entirely, to avoid using semicolons too often. And I never use semicolons during dialogue--I think it makes speech look too stiff and formal.

- Don't use that unnecessarily. She told me that she likes you. This should be She told me she likes you.

- Don't use that when you should use who. They're the folks who always vote Republican.

- Don't use in when you should use into. She went into the cellar. She's in the cellar now.

- Don't confuse less with fewer. Less involves mass nouns; fewer involves countable units. He has less cash in his pocket. He has fewer coins in his pocket.

- Don't overuse "action" words and phrases that are already overused. He shrugged, she rolled her eyes, he sighed, she frowned, etc. I still use them in my stories and will continue to--people do shrug and sigh and roll their eyes and frown--but I try not to go overboard with it.

- Don't overuse "lazy" words like suddenly, just, very, some, and really. I happily violate this advice as well, but it's still a good rule to know. Do as I say and not as I do.

- Don't misuse the word ironic. Rain on Betty's wedding day isn't ironic. It's just unfortunate. Getting run over by a tobacco truck on the way to buy cigarettes is ironic.

- Don't use postal abbreviations in your story narrative. Nobody enjoys spelling out Connecticut or Mississippi, but to use CT or MS in anything except a mailing address is incorrect.

- Don't use too many characters with soundalike names. Especially those beginning with the same letter, but this also includes anything that might call attention to your writing. For example, you don't want too many names that consist of only one syllable--Bob, Jim, Liz, Sue, Joe, Ed, Tom, Jake, Deb--or that rhyme, like Barry, Gary, Harry, and Larry.

- If you're submitting a short story, don't say anything about the plot of your story in your cover letter. No synopsis is needed unless that's specified in the guidelines.

- Don't say anything in your cover letter that's not relevant to your story or to writing. The editor of a mystery magazine might be interested in the fact that you're also a trial lawyer, but she won't care how many kids or cats you have.

- Don't use any colors, special characters, or weird fonts or font sizes in your manuscript. I don't even put anything in boldface type. (More on this next week in the Do's section.)

- Don't (if guidelines tell you to copy/paste your story into an email) do a straight copy/paste from a Word file--or at least send it to yourself first if you do. Usually it's best to convert your story to a .txt file first, then close the file, open it again, and only then do the copy/paste. Remember too that you'll lose special characters like italics when you convert to .txt, so you'll need to go back in and put an underscore (_) just before and after any words or phrases that need to be emphasized.

- Don't let your writing program put an extra space between your double-spaced paragraphs. Your manuscript should be evenly double-spaced throughout.

- Don't use widow/orphan suppression in your manuscript. It can do funny things to the length of your pages.

- Don't use alliteration unintentionally. My sister Susan saw Sally sitting in the sunshine.

- Don't "do" speech. "I'm fine," he smiled. "I'm not," she sighed. You can't smile or sigh words. Some editors are okay with this, but some aren't.

- Don't be redundant. Repeat again, shrugged his shoulders, nodded her head, shook his head no, exact same, basic fundamentals, free gift, best ever, unexpected surprise. Doubly redundant: nodded her head yes.

- Don't use incomplete comparisons. I get along with Mom better than my sister.

- Don't use too many synonyms for said. I probably sound like Elmore Leonard here, but Stephen King and many other respected authors advise this as well. Said and asked are transparent words--the reader's eye goes right over them. Words like stated and exclaimed and ruminated and queried and declared not only provide unneeded information; they sometimes cause the reader to stop and think about the writer and the writing instead of the story. (Exception: British authors seem to love substitutes for said. They love "ly" adverbs also. Check out the Harry Potters.)

- Don't feel you have to describe people, places, and things in infinite detail. Leave some of this to the reader's imagination.

- Don't supply too much information via dialogue. Are you going to your job at Regions Bank tomorrow, Dad?

- Don't overuse ing or as constructions. He picked up the gun and walked away is often better than Picking up the gun, he walked away or As he picked up the gun, he walked away. All are grammatically correct, but too many ing and as phrases, especially at the beginning of sentences, can give the impression of lazy writing. Read the successful authors--they rarely do much of this.

- Don't lose the reader by not using any dialogue "tags" at all. Nothing's more frustrating than having to count lines backward to see who's saying what.

- Don't use dangling modifiers (modifiers with no clear reference). Opening the window, a bee flew into the room. Crouched behind the fence, his eyes went to hers.

- Don't use misplaced modifiers, which is pretty much the same thing as the previous Don't. The instructor told us to work hard at the beginning of class. My company makes combs for people with unbreakable teeth.

- Don't write run-on sentences (no connecting word or punctuation). I thought the day would never end I was so tired I could drop.

- Don't use the word alright. Doing so is not all right.

- Don't use the word utilize. It might be the most worthless and needless word in the English language, and is heard mostly (of course) in political speeches. Use use instead.

- Don't use flashbacks in a short story unless you have to. If you must, write them as units of dramatic action and not as an information dump. If it's just backstory you need, consider providing it through dialogue. How long has it been now, since Lucy's mother died?

- Don't feel you have to describe every single thing that happens. If the phone rings, you don't need to tell the reader about your character picking it up and saying hello. Just start in on the dialogue. Same thing with a knock on the door.

- Don't only write what you know. Write what you like to read, or what you feel comfortable writing. Besides, research allows you to write what you know.

NOTE: I've heard the worst writing mistake you can make is to confuse it's with its. I've heard the worst public-speaking mistake you can make is to say with you and I or for you and I. (And everybody seems to do that--especially news anchors, who should know better.)

Pet peeves

I don't like reading fees, and I don't submit stories to places that charge them.

I don't like contests. (Most of them, anyway.) I've entered some and I've won a few, but I'd rather submit my original stories to paying markets. The chances of getting published in a respectable magazine or anthology are better than the chances of winning first place in a respectable contest.

I always use a singular verb with collective plural nouns like data and media. Also, as an old IBM guy, I prefer dayta, not datta. I like The dayta is correct. I don't like The datta are correct. In fact that always gives me the giggles, like a whoopee cushion.

When spoken, I think the word lived in short-lived should have a long i (as in arrive), not a short i (as in give). It just sounds more logical--if it's short-lived, it has a short LIFE. I think I'm one of maybe two people on the planet who like to pronounce it that way. If I remember correctly, James Lincoln Warren is the other.

I usually don't like it when nouns are used as verbs. Let's fellowship after the meeting. You two should dialogue about that. Exception: I went home and googled it.

I've grown desperately tired of words and expressions like I got your back, stunning video, iconic, ASAP, I'm all about (this or that), pushing the envelope, sense of closure, and giving it 110%. I'm guilty of using too many cliches anyway, in both speech and writing, so I sure don't use these. The same goes for adjectives like awesome and amazingThe view from the south rim of the Grand Canyon is awesome. My cousin's husband, no matter what she says, is not. He's not amazing, either.

I don't like to write in present tense. I'm not wild about reading present-tense stories either, but I've finally given in, and it no longer bothers me that much.

Other aggravations, while I'm thinking of it, are prescription-drug commercials, personal-injury lawyer commercials, robocalls, televangelists, coconuts, licorice, and almost anything on network TV. Then again, I'm getting old and grumpy, and these have nothing to do with writing.

What are some of your own don'ts, and pet peeves?

Wrap-up (thank God, right?)

The last thing I should point out is Don't overuse instructions about overuse. In other words, Don't pay too much attention to people who tell you how to write, because all of us think we know more than we do, and everyone's different.

Anyhow, in Part 2 next Saturday (June 6), I'll cover the Do's, along with an extremely biased discussion about breaking the rules.

See you then.


  1. Ohhh, badly. I feel badly, er, bad I can’t self-edit it out of my head.

    Plurals: James Lincoln Warren makes a good point about apostrophes and plurals. James says the correct way is to use quotes and not apostrophes, i.e, the ‘do’s and ‘don’t’s instead of do’s and don’t’s.

    On the other hand, JLW approves nouns used as verbs, which causes evil shivers.

    I would suggest one appropriate use of ‘said’ action substitutes– competitions or other requirements where every word literally counts.

    I like that -ing advice, which I’m often ƒ-ing up.

    Ditto on data… but of course. And you might recognize a pun there, John. (Remember DEBE?)

    Pet peeve: I keep hearing journalists, including the venerable BBC, saying, “begs the question,” instead of “asks the question.” The former has a specific, albeit confusing meaning in debate, rhetoric, and logic, which does not mean ‘ask’. My suggestion: Avoid using it altogether.

    I enjoyed the column, John!!! (exclamation marks!)

  2. John, you really hit a chord (hmm, a cliche) about grammar check. I hate it. Always have. Especially for fiction writers. It just doesn't understand our plight.

    And there was a story going around when I was in Hollywood that a particular producer hated ellipses. And that if he saw one in a screenplay he would toss it immediately. Not sure if that was true but I took out all the ellipses in anything I did for him...

  3. A lot too early in the morning. I'll have to read it again after a couple cups of coffee. Great points. A good guide for many writers. Hope it gets a lot of exposure.

  4. Leigh, JLW and I once had a disagreement about "snuck." I let snuck sneak into my column one day, and he informed me there's no such word. I'm sure he's right, but somehow the word just snuck up on me, and I like it and I continue to use it. And yes, I remember DEBE! As for "begs the question," that was one of the I'm-tired-of cliches that I meant to mention, and forgot to. Thanks for wading through all this!

    Paul, grammar-check programs just weren't designed for fiction writers. As for ellipses, too many of them can indeed be bad, but they're handy sometimes. You know what I mean . . .

    O'Neil, this WAS a lot of stuff for this early in the morning. And brace yourself, there'll be more of it coming next Saturday . . .

    Thanks for the comments, guys.

  5. I turned grammar check off years ago on my computer, because it hated my dialog, and I didn't need the criticism from a software.
    Meanwhile - I still have people saying "I feel nauseous" because most of my characters aren't that educated. They also use kleenex for everything, and xerox stuff, because that's what they grew up with.
    But again there is, and should be, a heck of a difference between the dialog we're writing and our own narration.
    BTW, "She went into the cellar. She's in the cellar now." What comes next?
    "Will she ever come out?" "Not if I have anything to do with it." There's a story right there.

  6. Oh, gee whiz, John. You hit so many of the don'ts that cause me to cringe. This is a keeper. THANK YOU. I'm looking forward to Part 2.

  7. Terrific post, John, and, as usual, I learned something new from the master. I didn't know you should convert a MS to a txt file before cutting and pasting into an email. I agree with most of your other advice, and have weaned myself away from semicolons.

    Grammar check is useless for prose, especially dialogue. I keep it strictly for the count of active and passive verbs. If I have more than 2% passive word in a piece, I go back to see if I can change some. It also is usually wrong on homonyms like there/their/they're and your/you're, too. Your best judge is still reading your work out loud, preferably while you walk around the room. Unless you're Robert Frost.

    I include many of your other comments in my revision workshop.

    Can I add one of my own pet peeves: I loathe the word "multiple" to mean "many or several," as often shows up in police reports and news articles. It sounds wrong to my ear. And thank you for "begs the question," an old rhetorical device no one understands now...

    I see the dislike of present tense from lots of people and never got that. Dickens uses it in Bleak House, Don Winslow uses it almost exclusively, and my Zach Barnes series is all in present tense (My Woody Guthrie stories are in past), and so are most of my short stories, one of which was an Edgar finalist. A present-tense Barnes was a finalist for the Shamus. But, neither won, so there you are.

    I have edited occasionally, but my last two clients were both such nightmares to work with that even though my business cards and website still say I edit, I do less and less, and don't miss it.

    Can't wait for the next installment of this! (There's my exclamation post for the summer)

  8. Eve, I remember being at a party once and a guy who came alone said, "My wife stayed home--she's nauseous." One of the ladies whispered to me, "She sure is." And I admit saying Kleenex for any kind of tissue and Coke for any kind of soft drink. I did long ago stop saying Xerox instead of copy, though, because I worked so many years for IBM.

    Yep, I think you just wrote a four-line story, beginning with "She went into the cellar." I like it! By the way, I stomp all over the exclamation-point rule in emails and blog comments, and often use several !!!!s together. Emails, to me, are a breath of fresh air to a writer because they have an informal feel, almost as if you're chatting on the phone.

    By the way, are you ever tempted to write !? or ?! after a question? I've done it from time to time, though I suspect it's verboten.

  9. Thanks, cj (M. Johnston) --stop in again next week if you can! These were fun to put together, and of course I left out a ton of things that I remembered too late to include.

  10. Hey Steve -- As for copying/pasting into an email, YES, converting first to .txt before the copy/paste is much safer, and the way to be pretty sure it'll go in correctly is to convert, save the file, open it again, and then do the paste. Even so, I always like to email the result to myself before emailing it to the editor, just to make sure it looks right. Thankfully, pasting the ms into an email is happening less and less, with most pubs now accepting attached files or providing an online submission form.

    I like your formula for active/passive verbs. Including too many passive verbs is one of my many faults, and I'm sure I regularly exceed your 2% mark. And yes, reading your story aloud is a great way to catch a lot of errors, especially mistakes in dialogue.

    Leigh was the one who reminded me of "begs the question." You hear that a LOT in news broadcasts, and it has indeed become a cliche.

    As for present-tense writing, wasn't Bleak House the very first popular use of present tense? The first I can recall, in my own reading, was Presumed Innocent, and it honestly threw me for a while, though Turow's story was good enough to get me past it pretty fast. I now don't mind it that much, but--again--I've never written a story of my own using present tense. I think I would be constantly lapsing back into past tense. I'm too old-fashioned on that, I guess. I admire you for the ability to do it well.

    I also salute you and other professional editors. You are correct: editing is HARD work.

    Sorry I forced you to use up your exclamation point. I have several here if you need one later this summer.

  11. Takes me back to the Milsaps classes with my other brother Bill. Good job, Sir John. (I know you haven't been knighted by the queen, but you should.)

  12. Thanks, John! Lots to think about here. I have my own list of over-used phrases I hate--"24/7" is one of them.

    Looking forward to the DOs!

    bobbi c.

  13. John,

    As for the short lived controversy, you and James Lincoln Warren have company. Well, I’m sure it’s more accurate to say had company. Sister Edwina Marie, who got apoplectic if anyone said “short lived” with a short i, must be in heaven correcting the grammar of all the saints. She always corrected any student who did not pronounce short lived with a long i.

    Merriam-Webster gives the long i version as the second pronunciation. You can only imagine the ruckus Sister Edwina causes when she encounters the Merriams and Webster in heaven.

    Grammar will be the death of us all.


  14. Hey Unknown (though you're not unknown to me). Thanks for the note! We sure had a good time in those classes, didn't we. I miss you AND your other brother Bill.

    Bobbi, 24/7 is another of those cliches that probably sounded good 20 years ago or so. Let me know of others you hate.

    Paula, I don't think I've ever heard a weathercaster or anyone else use what I consider to be the correct pronunciation of short-lived. I'm glad to hear JLW and I are in good company, with you and Sister Edwina Marie. Yes, the whole grammar thing is frustrating, but also fascinating. I love to hear others' views on all this. Thank you for stopping in, here!

  15. All great advice. And even the best of writers need reminders from time to time.

  16. When my character Shanks possesses something it is Shanks' not Shanks's. So there. And in a story I am working on he corrects someone who said that a person was acting suspicious when the person was acting suspiciously.

    Great stuff, John.

  17. Thanks, Jacqueline! As I mentioned somewhere else a minute ago, I don't follow all these rules or avoid all the things I probably should, but I do try. I appreciate your stopping in!

  18. Hey Rob. Yep, the old extra s after a possessive ending with an s started with Strunk & White, I think, and I still like to use it when I can--but occasionally I don't. A lot depends on how it looks in print and how it would sound if spoken. I like pretty much everything about Shanks anyhow, so that makes it easier to agree with this.

    Also, he was of course right to correct the use of suspicious, but that's another of those things, especially in dialogue, that I think is open to discussion. I'd sure rather have one of my characters say "Come quick" instead of "Come quickly," even though come quickly is correct.

    Always good to get the librarian point of view on this kind of stuff. Thanks!

  19. Mr. FLoyd,
    Do you have a weekly or daily blog? I would love to read it.
    Thank you for all your short stories. Love them.

    Leslie Padgett

  20. Hey Leslie. I do not have a separate blog, either daily or weekly, but thank you for asking. I did a column every Saturday at a site called Criminal Brief from 2007-2011 along with a few fellow SleuthSayers, and since 2011 (when CB closed its doors and SleuthSayers was born) I've done a column every first, third, and fifth Saturday here at SS. I suspect that if I did a daily blog, folks would be running screaming into the streets, and I'd probably be right there with them.

    If ever you have questions about (or just want to chat about) writing, publishing, short stories, mystery stories, etc., you're always welcome to contact me, either via FB or my email address: jfloyd@teclink.net.

    And I am so pleased and grateful that you like my stories. Thank you again!

  21. You don't like licorice? No Pernod for you!
    Great advice. Some things I'd quibble about in the first paragraph of the advice list, but almost every single other thing you mention I totally agree with. The only way I think you can get away with breaking most of these rules is in humor writing. For example, I created a supporting character in my Tina Tales series who uses cliches and unusual words. I have a lot of fun with that, and hope readers do, too. And of course, all that is in dialogue.

  22. Just never acquired the taste for licorice, Jan. Yep, no Pernod for me, ONE YEAR!

    With regard to dialogue, I think you can do whatever you like, there, as long it sounds right. Single-word sentences, misspelled words, anything goes. The main thing is to capture the way we really talk. (Dialogue is by far the most fun thing to write anyway, I think.)

    As for quibbling about some of these points, that's to be expected--all of us have different views about some of this. I always found it amusing, though, that the English professors who took my short-story writing classes always LOVED the discussions about Breaking the Rules. They said they found it so refreshing and liberating that fiction writers could and should sometimes defy all these Holy and ironclad commandments of grammar and style if it made their stories easier to read and/or more believable. I don't remember who said it (Elmore Leonard? Loren Estleman?), but someone wisely said that if the rules of proper English ever stand in the way of writing a clear sentence, you should run right over them. And I agree.

    Thanks for the thoughts. Hope to see you here next week, too. Be safe!

  23. Great stuff, John. I can't wait for the Do's (not Dos').

    Watch the adverbs, show don't tell, just use "said" or "asked," don't overuse "that," and watch the Grammar Check! All great advice.

    Some writers lose me because they don't have enough dialogue tags. I always make sure in my writing it's clear who's talking, though sometimes I'm afraid I overdo it.

    Years ago an editor told me that if I had any more characters "nod" in my story, he was going to fall asleep.

    Also, I hate the present tense.

    Enough ranting? Like I said, can't wait for next week's do's.


  24. Hey Bob, Thanks for the thoughts.

    I too worry sometimes about overdoing the dialogue tag thing, and I can't see a good reason to use tags if the reader truly knows who the speaker is, but I re-read Lonesome Dove awhile back (re-re-read it, actually), and in it McMurtry must've used "Gus said" and "Call said" thousands of times. Sometimes when the attributes were NOT needed in order to identify who was speaking. I think the point is, if you use "said," it's pretty hard to pop the reader out of the flow of your story--and I suspect McMurtry's reasoning was to write with a relaxing style throughout and create a smooth, easy-to-read novel, which it is.

    As for Grammar Check, my wife really likes using it for the writing she does, but she doesn't write fiction, and what she likes is that when it flags something it's at least a reminder to check and make sure she's said things the way she wants to say them. But if you write fiction, which is most of what I write, I just don't want those green squiggly lines interrupting me and reminding me all the time of these supposed errors because there are SO many times I need to commit those otherwise sinful fragments and splices and other things that make fiction WORK. Enough said.

    I feel your pain, on having characters "nod." But there are so many things they need to nod about, and having them nod can sometimes keep from them from having to say anything at all. I even use it to have characters indicate direction, like nodding to the left or right. But I get the point. OVERuse is the thing to watch, and I do try to watch that. Everyone, and especially editors, have their pet peeves. One editor once asked me what I meant when one of my characters "cut her eyes" at something. I just sighed and changed it to "glanced."

    As for present tense, a LOT of writers use and like it, as Steve said in one of the above comments. I think I just like the old "once-upon-a-time" style of storytelling. And I think present tense makes it just a bit harder for me to suspend my disbelief. Different strokes. Present tense is here to stay, that's for sure, and--as I mentioned--it doesn't bother me as it used to.

    Thanks again for dropping in! Hope to see you here next week.

  25. Sorry--I just noticed that I used "everyone have" together in the comment just before this one. That is of course a mistake, but I also used "everyone" and "their" together in that same sentence, which--these days--might or might not be considered a mistake. More on that particular topic (singular nouns with singular possessives vs. singular nouns with plural possessives) next week . . .

  26. Great fun! Okay, I'll join the present tense discussion. It doesn't make sense. If something is happening NOW, then how did it get written on the page? If you have a logical brain, this will throw you out of the story.

    But then the fantasy side of me argues: all fiction is fantasy. So if you can suspend your disbelief for a world set in a time of magic, why can't you accept something could be happening at the same time it's being written?

    I try, but my brain hurts - grin.

  27. Melodie, it IS enough to make your brain hurt. But I like your explanation--I mean, fiction's just a pack of lies anyway, so why should the fact that the action's taking place NOW bother the reader?

    Here's the thing. I've read some really good stories and novels written in present tense, and I sure wouldn't have wanted to miss out on them, so yes, I've tried to ease into reading that style of fiction without being too bothered by it. But I do know that I'll never try to write it myself, because it doesn't seem natural to me and I'm afraid I'd be constantly lapsing back into the more comfortable (for me) past tense.

    To each his or her own!

    Keep grinnin'.

  28. Let me explain where I first became aware of present tense, although I didn't know there was a name for it until years later when I was finally introduced to grammar. A grim day in my life...

    In my deformative youth, we had a television, but I seldom watched it except for baseball games, and later, football. And most of us had transistor radios for sports, and, a little later rock and roll, but I digress.

    Every kid in my neighborhood could, and often did, do a play-by-play of himself when we played ball on the sandlot. Sometimes, it got pretty funny.

    Sports announcers always use present tense because it's happening RIGHT NOW. Stage directions in plays are in present tense for the same reason. Writing in the present tense draws the reader into the story and helps her or him participate. Obviously, this isn't everyone's shot of bourbon, but that just means there's more for me. ;-)

  29. Steve, don't feel as if folks are ganging up on you. I actually admire writers who CAN write in present tense, because for me it would be difficult.

    Also, as I said, I'm getting to the point where I can ignore it and still enjoy the story. The main thing is, if it works for you and you're good at it--and you are--keep doing it!

    Vive la difference!

  30. Speaking of your cousin's husband, John...a bit of my faith in the human species as a mammal that expresses itself through language died the day that astronaut described his space walk as "awesomesauce." He must have been sleeping the day the teacher said (I hope the teacher said) that the point of communication is to let others who didn't have your experience know what it was like out there.

  31. Hey Liz. Yep, the awesomesauce comment was descriptive, for sure. Thanks for bringing that up. For what it's worth, I still watch Wheel of Fortune now and then, God help me, and almost every time a contestant is introduced, he or she makes reference to a spouse that's "amazing." Which, to me, really IS amazing.

    BY THE WAY, gotta mention this: I just finished listening to a CD called Outrageous Older Woman by Elizabeth Zelvin, and it's wonderful!! What great music. Liz, I'll email you later with more reactions. I loved it!

  32. Allright! Wonderful; you gave 120%!!! Seriously, thanks, John, I'll keep these in mind! You are a fine teacher!

  33. John, thanks for these pointers. How about another don’t: Don’t use more than one space between sentences, something I still struggle with. (I think Word now has a one-space default.) Recently I published a piece on self-editing and am happy to see many of my don’ts validated here. As for pet peeves, we agree on reading fees and contests. They can be a breeding ground for bait-and-switch tactics designed to exploit aspiring writers.

  34. At the beginning, it makes mention of a Short Mystery Fiction forum.
    Where can I find that?
    - Paul Scholz
    Email: koinonia1997@hotmail.com

  35. To Jeff Baker and L. Martin and Paul -- Thanks for the comments!

    As for using only one space between sentences, I struggle with it too. I'm finally getting used to it, in typing stories for submission, because almost every editor seems to want that, but in emails I still space twice after a comma--it just feels more natural and comfortable. I suspect the two-spaces thing was in place in the past it looked better with Courier (typewriter) font. Now, with most stories typed in TNR, the one-space separation looks fine.

    I think very few of my writer friends agree with me about contests. I avoid them and they seem to love them.

    Paul, I have sent you a long email with info about the Short Mystery Fiction forum and the SMF Society. It's a good group.

    Thanks again!

  36. Pat Marinelli31 May, 2020 15:12

    My pet peeve is when people write 'the marine'or 'the army' in military stories or books. If you are referring to a US Marine or the US Army, then capitalize it. He's a Marine or She left the Army. The same thing goes for US Navy, US Coast Guard, and Navy SEALs. If you are in the US and referring to these organizations or members, please capitalize it.

  37. Good point, Pat. Now and then I've written the word army without capitalizing it, but I think it was always an army of news reporters or enraged demonstrators or that kind of thing. The issue of capitalization can be tricky at other times, though, like when to capitalize the President or the VP or the like. I have often turned to my trusty Chicago Manual of Style on that kind of thing, and it seldom fails me.

    Thanks for the comment. And keep in touch!

  38. Pat Marinelli01 June, 2020 16:33

    John, I've wondered about president and First Lady. I see them written this way often in article. Never understood it. I guess now I have to go check on it. LOL

  39. I need to check on it again myself, Pat. And sometimes opinions differ on that kind of thing.

    You take care!

  40. Thank you for an excellent [+ many adjectives] post, John [+ exclamation points]. I'm keeping this one handy and sharing it. As for grammar check, I'm also not a big fan but always like to see the suggestions. Most are not useful, but it did help me discover and correct a bad habit. I was using "of" inappropriately, not only with pronouns but also with nouns, in the phrases "all of" and "both of."

  41. Hey VS -- Thanks for stopping in, here.

    I'm not really knocking Grammar Check, but BOY can it be frustrating sometimes, when trying to write fiction, because there are so many things that "sound" good (so I do 'em) that don't meet the all the style rules. (A lot more about that, this coming Saturday.) But, as I might've said, my wife loves GC because it flags things that might've been honest mistakes that you need to correct.

    Using "all of," when used incorrectly, is a good point--we all (all of us?) do it occasionally, and it's another of those things we probably need to reminded about.

    Take care, and have a good rest-of-the week!


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>