Posts Tagged ‘grammar’

I did not finish watching the Netflix show 13 Reasons Why, owing to how depressing it was (I like dark stuff, but that show just took the joy out of living!). But in recent weeks, one scene from that show, a surprisingly not-sad scene, has been coming back to me. In a flashback, the main character Clay is critiquing another kid’s essay, and notices the latter uses the word “unique” several times. When the other kid asks why that’s an issue, Clay says that if everything is unique, it means nothing is unique. And on the surface I agreed with that sentiment, but I didn’t realize how it applied to my own writing until almost a year later.

As many of you know, I recently finished a fourth draft of my college thesis Rose, and that I had the novel beta read by a couple of people, including my colleague and good friend Joleene Naylor. One of the things she pointed out was a problem throughout the novel, and which I’ve been trying to avoid in subsequent stories, is repeating words, especially adjectives. Apparently I’ve been using the word “unique” several times in a single chapter or paragraph, though “unique” wasn’t usually the word I used.

Actually, it tended to look something like this (not an actual line from the novel, but I think you’ll get the idea):

Rose stood in place, refusing to show her fear. Angrily, Akira placed the book on the table.

See how I used “place” twice? A better way to write this might have been:

Rose held her ground, refusing to show her fear. Angrily, Akira placed the book on the table.

See the difference? And I had to do this throughout the fourth draft, identifying where I repeated words in close proximity to one another, and then coming up with a better way to say it.

And I feel like this is a really common issue that writers have to deal with at some point, or possibly at several points, in their careers. Despite our reputations for loving really big words (verbose, callipygian, penultimate, etc), when it comes to fiction, we tend to just use everyday words. After all, we’re normally writing for everyday people, not for a small niche of scholars or people associated with a small religious movement. So if a simple word, like “unique” or “place,” fits the bill for telling the story, we’re likely going to use it. And we’ll use it again and again, if it’s the first word that comes to mind.

But as the above points show, you have to vary what words you use in order to tell a story and not distract the reader. And that’s something I’m trying to learn how to do as a writer. You know, along with learning how to write good short stories. And writing good stories in general. Again, I leave that up to the feedback of my readers. But this is getting a lot of emphasis as well. Because as great as a story is, the language it’s told through can determine how successful it may be. Imagine if Harry Potter had been published and it read like a sixth grader had written it. I guarantee it wouldn’t be the phenomenon it is today and I might not have been inspired to be a writer (unless JK Rowling was in the sixth grade when it was published. Then she’d be the Mozart of literature).

So while I may never actually need to know twelve different ways to say “unique,” hopefully in the future I can avoid making mistakes like the ones above. And if I do (because let’s face it, no author is perfect), I hope I have a good group of editors and beta readers around me to point out those mistakes.

And if you’re an author who makes this mistake, the only way I can think of to avoid it is to do what you’re already doing: think about the words you use. Just do it a bit harder when it comes to the individual words themselves. At least, that’s what I’ve been doing. And I think it’s been working.

That’s all for now, my Followers of Fear. Expect another post from me (or maybe even two) very soon. Until next time, pleasant nightmares.


I’m far from perfect. And there are lots of areas I can be better (especially my impulse control when it comes to sweets). However, this post will be focused on the writing aspects I can improve upon.

There are a couple of reasons why I want to talk about that here. One is that for personal things I want to improve upon (damn you, sweet tooth! Damn you to hell!), I only talk about those sort of things here when it’s really important. Like if I’m really struggling with my choices in life, or if I want to talk about being on the spectrum. And at the moment, there’s nothing in my life I feel like talking about here at the moment. Second, this is a blog for a writer, so it makes sense that if I’m going to talk about improving stuff, it’ll be about improving my writing. And finally, while a lot of people I know in real life and even a few people online treat me as THE writing expert, especially when it comes to fiction writing, I’m far from an expert. If I were an expert, I’m pretty sure I’d have several bestsellers out by now, a few of them would have been made into movies already, and I’d be writing full-time in a nice three-bedroom, one-and-a-half bath house (I have goals that I aim for).

Point is, as a writer there are areas I’d like to improve in, so I thought I’d list some of those and ask for your feedback. Many of you who follow this blog are writers, and have much more experience than I do. Perhaps you’ve dealt with some of the issues I’ve dealt with, and have some tips on how to deal with them. Anything’s possible, right?

1. I’m addicted to adverbs and gerunds. Now if you don’t remember most of the fancy terms from grammar class, adverbs are words that end in “ly” (wildly, musically, horribly) and gerunds are words ending in “ing” (ending, writing, killing). And I overuse them in my writing (see? Did it right there). One of the biggest criticisms I got from Rose, truth be told, is that I overuse them. In fact, I almost used “actually” instead of “truth be told” in that last sentence. And in the one before this, I started writing “nearly” before I switched to “almost.” And in that last one, “I switched” started as “switching.” And before that–oh, you get the idea!

A couple of years ago, I wrote a post about how I had a similar problem with semicolons. I overused them, especially when they weren’t needed. Once I recognized the problem, I was able to correct it. But I have a feeling correcting these issues won’t come so naturally (see?). For one thing, while the semicolon issue was about fixing incorrect uses of punctuation, what I’m doing here isn’t technically wrong. These are speech patterns used everyday, you just don’t see them in a lot of fiction to the extent I use them. At least, not really good fiction. So one thing I’d like to do is know when to use adverbs and gerunds, and when not to use them.

2. Passive vs. active voice. I have a lot of trouble telling those two apart. Which is bad, because editors and publishers tend to prefer active voices in fiction, and I somehow always end up writing in passive voice. What’s the difference? Is there a video I need to watch or something that explains this? Help!

3. Writing snappier action. This is something I’ve taken steps to improve, but it’s still a work in progress. I tend to write these long sentences that illustrate a character taking a certain action. Example: “She stood, walked to the kitchen, and placed the glass in the dishwasher.” It’s a good sentence, but for fiction, this is better: “She put the glass in the dishwasher.” Boom! And if I’ve already established that the character is on the couch, it works even better. It shows the same amount of action with less words.

I’m trying to implement this sort of snappy action into my stories. Editors and publishers seem to like it, and when there are limits to how many words a submitted story can have, it’s helpful in reducing the word count. Still, it’s going to take some work. This, like the adverbs and gerunds and possibly the passive voice thing, are deeply ingrained habits.

No reason to add this photo. I just want to show you my new author profile pic.

4. Short story writing. I’ve written novels or works meant to be novels for most of my life. That’s what I mostly read, so that’s what I mostly wrote. I’ve learned how to write short stories and read plenty of them since high school and college, but I’m still not as good at them as I am at novels. Which is sad, because I’ve had many, many ideas for short stories and novelettes over the years. And since I’ve spent most of my time on novels, I’ve written only a few short stories, and not many of those have been published.

What I want to do is write more short stories and novelettes, get better at writing them, and get a few of those published. Is it necessary, especially since I prefer novels? No, but a lot of authors I like do great short fiction, so I’d like to do great short fiction too. Good news is, I’ve been reading a lot of anthologies lately, and I should have a bit of time after I finish the fourth draft of Rose. That should give me time to practice.

5. Not listening to my anxieties. All writers deal with anxieties, especially with how their work will be received. Sometimes I let them have too much control of my mind, and I start freaking out Just yesterday, I got panicky over whether certain characters in Rose might be called tacky stereotypes. After a lot of discussion online with friends and colleagues, I don’t believe they are, but the worry ate at me for a while.

The important thing for me is just to be a bit more confident in myself, and the stories I write. And I should work on techniques to combat those anxieties when they try to tear at me. Because at the end of the day, I’ve still written some decent fiction. And I won’t let doubt or fear keep me from improving it and making it into possibly publishable fiction.


Well, those are the things I want to improve on with my writing. What are your suggestions on fixing those issues? Let me know in the comments below.

That’s all for now, my Followers of Fear. I’ve only six chapters of Rose left to edit, so I’ll hopefully get started on the next one tonight. Until next time, pleasant nightmares!

Authors are constantly evolving. Even late in their careers, they’re never not learning new tricks or trying some experiment with their latest story. Check out Anne Rice’s latest stories, introducing scientific elements into what are normally supernatural stories, or JK Rowling going from fantasy coming-of-age series into literary and crime. Heck, His Royal Highness Stephen King is doing hard-crime and has introduced more alien and sci-fi elements into a lot of his recent stories.

Back in January I wrote a post about how I wanted to create the same images in my stories but with less words. As my word counts are still often very high, measuring whether or not I’m actually succeeding based on that. So while I’ve been editing one of my short stories for an anthology I wanted to get published in, I looked at specific paragraphs, looked at how they were pre-editing, and then what they looked like post-editing. What I got looked pretty promising.

Here’s one paragraph prior to editing:

One of the cheerleaders opened a door and Lizzy was thrown in, falling down a set of stairs. As she landed on hard concrete floor, she heard the girls laughing up above. They thought this was funny? She’d be lucky if she came away from this with just bruised ribs!

And here’s the same paragraph after it’s been edited:

One of the cheerleaders opened a door and Lizzy was thrown in, falling down a set of stairs, landing hard on concrete floor, the other girls laughing up above. They thought this was funny? She’d be lucky if she came away with only bruised ribs!

There’s a five-word difference, two sentences have been merged into one, and I changed “just” for “only” in the last sentence. There’s a more noticeable difference in the second example I have:

Suddenly Eric stood up, turning around in a circle to face the cheerleaders with an angry look on his face. Some of the cheerleaders actually shrank away from him, which Lizzy thought was extraordinary: she’d never thought anything but pimples scared these narcissistic twats.

And the edited version:

Eric stood up, glaring at each and every cheerleader in turn. Some of them actually shrank away from him, which Lizzy thought was extraordinary: she’d thought nothing but pimples actually scared these narcissistic twats.

Ten word difference, and if you ask me it creates the same basic image while being less wordy. In fact, I thin it’s written better than the first example, creating much more compelling images than before. And along with these examples, I’ve noticed a few more differences in how I write. For instance, I’m using less words involving the suffix “ing” (otherwise known as a gerund*). I would often write a sentence like this, “Getting up and heading to the cabinet, Lizzy slid back the secret panel and got out the scotch”. Now I prefer writing “Lizzy got up, went to the cabinet, slid back the secret panel, and got out the scotch.” To me, this seems not necessarily smoother, but it sounds better to me. It’s four succinct actions, one after another. Boom, boom, boom, boom, forming images in your head that run in fluid succession, like a scene on a Blu-Ray disc. Plus one word shorter, that’s not bad.

In any case, I feel like this is real good progress for me. Like I’ve said before, I’ve stopped worrying about word count because that sort of worry makes it difficult for me to tell the story as it needs to be told. But if finding ways to tell the same good story with less words can make for a better story, then yes I will pay attention to word count. And as you know, I’m all about telling a great story, so I’ll keep working on trying to tell a good story with less words, see where it gets me.

Hopefully many more stories, a few more published works and a lot of scared readers. Am I right?

That’s all for now, my Followers of Fear. I’ll see you next time, which I swear will be before I leave Germany. Have a good one!

*Funny story I can’t resist telling you, when I was in high school at Columbus Torah Academy, I was taking an English class and we were going over the different parts of grammar. When we came upon gerunds, I commented that the word sounded British (and they kind of do). My English teacher then, for whatever reason, told me to speak British. So I put on my terrible British accent, and start saying all these British phrases: “Pip pip, cheerio.” “Spot of tea and crumpets.” “God save the Queen.” And then randomly the head of the Judaic Studies department at the time, Rabbi Elbaz, a short Moroccan rabbi with this really thick accent, walks into our classroom. I say, “God save Rabbi Elbaz too.” The class laughs, and then Rabbi Elbaz says, “Oy Rami, now God will look into my records and see all the bad things I’ve done.” I swear, the whole class was laughing hysterically until he left! I wish I knew what he thought of it.