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.
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 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 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 "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 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.)
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 amazing. The 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.