Monday, September 3, 2018

Weeding the word garden: tics, cliches, & word crutches

HALLIE EPHRON: So, I’m editing a manuscript (CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR) which comes out next summer, and I can’t believe how many times (75) I started a sentence with “So.” And that so doesn’t count the times I used so in the middle of a sentence. I even have a place where a character at a loss for words, says, “So, so, so…”  

Okay, so it’s mostly in dialogue. That's how characters talk, don't they? So is SO today's YOU KNOW, or is it just my writing tic? 

So what are the words that you have to weed out of your final drafts?

INGRID THOFT:  There are tics--words and phrases like "somewhat," "actually," and "a bit," and then there are actions that I seem to favor subconsciously.  Sipping, for instance.  Apparently, I love it when my characters sip their beverages.  I'm also a big fan of clomping and trudging.  

And this isn't so much a tic as a practice, but adverbs can sneak into early drafts.  It's a good idea to weed them out and find a better verb!  

LUCY BURDETTE: If I could just stop saying "just!" Just as they rushed into the room, I was just so tired, if I could just lighten up...the possibilities are just endless. 

In real live life, I seem to start way too many sentences with "well." At least I don't think that's bled over into my writing. In the old days, a lot of "skittering" went on in various iterations of my manuscripts. Now I think people are more likely to trot...

HANK PHILLIPPPI RYAN: My characters shrug. And grin. And sometimes they shrug and grin. Do you know how often a real person shrugs and grins? NEVER. Never! It would look absurd. 

Plus they're always raising eyebrows. Or saying" Right?" And I always do an edit-find for of course, and just, and actually

Oh, I haven't used trudged recently. thank you Ingrid! Maybe we should all edit each others, right? Oh--rats.

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Lucy, I also share your habit of starting too many sentences with "well," and unfortunately my characters have picked it up. I'm going to have to go through during edits and remove 90% of them. 

Also, each character has his or her "thing" that he or she does - for instance, Russ the cop rubs the bridge of his nose beneath his glasses, and Clare the priest fiddles with her hair, which she keeps in a twist. 

In real life, we all have habitual gestures, and we do them a LOT  but in a novel, a few mentions add up quickly. I had one reader propose a drinking game based on my writing - one sip of Russ pinches the bridge of his nose, two sips if he says, "'Scuse my French." I forgot what chug was - probably the two characters looking at each other with LUST.

So I'm trying to reduce the number of times I use those tics. (Look, Hallie, I said "so!") 

Also, I am very fond of people levering themselves from chairs. When I finally listened to the audio of my first book, I was appalled to discover how MANY times characters levered themselves up and down. It sounded like a text by Archimedes. I pay close attention to that word now.

JENN McKINLAY: Probably seems to be my go to tic. But I'm a so-er, too, and, well, just, shrugged, stomped...yes, yes, all of those. Probably, I should work on it. I have noticed that every book seems to have its own catch phrase, such as "she couldn't seem to...". I had one book where my protagonist couldn't seem to do doodly squat. That took some rewriting. 

But, yes, every book has its challenges.

RHYS BOWEN: Oh Hank--my characters grin too. And glance. And turn. They are always turning. She turned to face him. He turned away. She turned to leave. Revolving characters, that's what I have. And actually. It creeps in far too often. 

Then I become obsessed with he said, she said. So I make my characters do things while they talk. "Why did you come here?" She put down her tea cup. 

And Julia, I agree, listening to audio can be painful. One thing I do is to read portions of the book out loud so that those tics become obvious before I send my baby into the outside world.

DEBORAH CROMBIE: I think we're all dipping into the same phrase pool! My pages are full of "a bit," my characters shrug, and sip, and raise their eyebrows, and then they glance. Again and again. 

And then they turn--oops, that's another tic, starting sentences with "and." But (there's another one) while they smile, they only occasionally grin. People say, "Right," and if they really want to make a point, they begin sentences with "Look." It's all so bloody (oops, another one) annoying. 

As far as the dreaded "he said she said," I prefer that to substituting alternate verbs. You know, "she whined." Although she whined winningly, I'm sure..

HALLIE: So today's question... when you read, what author-ly tics make you wince?

95 comments:

  1. Actually, I find none of those that you’ve mentioned to be particularly bothersome when I’m reading . . . it’s those silly-sounding words [like “totes” in place of “totally”] and the authors who that insist on making every other word out of a character’s mouth a particularly offensive expletive that make me cringe . . . .

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    1. Hmmm, totes. I wonder if it's generational.
      Your comment made me think about how annoying I find it when an author repeatedly mentions brand names. One Timex watch is ok, I get it, but when every item the character owns has a brand (telegraphing...something) it gets old fast.

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  2. I don't usually spot tics that happen throughout a book, but I will sometimes stumble onto a dense outcropping of "that" or "just" or some similar word, repeated over and over again within a few paragraphs. In my own writing "just" is a habitual offender, and so is "top," since a lot of what I'm writing now involves bragging about my company in places with strictly limited character counts. I've also noticed a book or two where every new character seems to be a blue-eyed blonde.

    Never mind. Hooray to all of you for being brave enough to put words on paper and send them out into the world for me to read. I can deal with a few extra "buts" and "ands."

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    1. Funny about the blue-eyed blondes Gigi. I was at an event last week where a reader complimented Edith Maxwell for including a redhead. She said no one remembers to put redheads in their books!

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    2. Gosh, I'd have said the opposite. "Redhead with green eyes" -- totes cliche.
      Yeah, "just" is a serial offender.

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    3. I'm tired of squared jaw men in books. Can't a man be attractive otherwise ?

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    4. And what about "emerald green eyes"? Who actually has eyes that color? I've never in my life seen such a thing. My own eyes are green, but they're more olive green. I've never seen such a description in a novel, though it's much more realistic.

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    5. Contacts can work wonders (she smirked.)

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    6. Ah, yes! Colored contacts are probably also responsible for the turquoise eyes I happen upon from time to time, although I blame Elizabeth Taylor for the violet eyes.

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  3. I agree with Gigi hooray to you brave souls for putting words into our worlds. Just, please, please stop telling me “the smile did not (or did) reach their eyes”. It is repeated too often by too many authors, even you, dear Reds. And is usually unnecessary. I already know that this character despises, is afraid of, is threatening that character or loves, adores, cannot resist teasing the other one.
    Whatever you keep writing all the words into lovely sentences and awesome stories. Thank you.

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    1. thanks for the support Elisabeth, we will try to weed that silly phrase out!

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    2. That smile... Yikes. Going to my manuscript now. Thanks, Elisabeth.

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  4. I have a lot of the same word crutches as you all. But when I'm reading someone else's book I tend not to notice these unless it's really overdone or the overused word or phrase is something obscure. I once read an older book by a bestselling author that included multiple instances of the phrase "on the good-news front" and "on the bad-news front." It was a phrase I had never seen before or since. This author doesn't include either phrase in her later books, so I'm guessing an editor must have mentioned it at some point.

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    1. I think you can get away with it in a book like, say, Bridget Jones Diary, if it's the CHARACTER'S tic.

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    2. Agreed. In this case it was definitely an author tic. This book was third person from two points of view, a police detective and someone else, and the phrase was used in scenes from both of their viewpoints.

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  5. Interesting. I do notice such things, especially if they seem to occur a lot. Someone recently recommended reading the work out loud and then hearing those expressions. I'm not sure if that would work as well as having someone else read the work out loud, before it becomes an audio book!
    I don't like when an author says "he had an unreadable expression". Come on, give us something to work with!
    Lately I have noticed a favorite phrase: he beamed at her. Those few words tell me so much more than if he simply smiled at her. But I certainly don't want people beaming left and right throughout the book!

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    1. I agree, left and right beaming is not a good thing. ;-)

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    2. I reread a WIP last week and one guy did NOTHING but beam. Once is enough!

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  6. I'm sick of reading pages lifted from a guidebook or encyclopedia to describe a setting. Or a spritely dialogue: "did you know blah blah blah?" "How interesting! No, I didn't realize blah blah blah." I'd rather read how the character processes the setting internally or reacts to it using the five senses.


    I have a question about dialogue tags. I've been scolded for using anything except said or asked or, preferably, using occasional body language by the speaker to keep things straight. How about an occasional scream, shriek, or bellow?

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    1. Yes, Margaret! When I teach writing I talk about that as "Did-you-know, Bob," dialogue. Wooden, information-conveying dialogue that's there because the author thought it was boring otherwise.

      On the occasional scream, shriek, or bellow: Only VERY occasionally. There are better, more descriptive ways of showing all of those.

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    2. In my old writer's group we called that "info dump."

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    3. Hallie, I will allow "whisper." How about "mutter" and "mumble?"

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  7. Once I read an Andrew Greeley book, the last one I ever read by the way, in which he used "arguably" on every other page. It was one of his later ones. Must have been written right after hs publisher decided his books would sell by virtue of his name and no editor need be bothered to look at it first. The publisher was dead wrong.

    Adverbs do annoy me, but I rarely read books written by poor writers, so it isn't something I often come across.

    Here's the deal, though. If I find myself editing, reading a phrase over and over to get the meaning, noticing punctuation/grammatical/fill in the blank errors, I put the book aside. Then I go to my content and return it for refund. There are so many good books, and I am so damned old, that I'll never run out of quality reading materials. I refuse to read OR pay for crap. Or edit.

    I, like Gigi, admire all of you for your bravery in putting your innermost thoughts and images out there, going through the Labors of Hercules to get a book from your head to the shelf. Thank you for keeping me entertained and content every single day of my life.

    Last week I counted, and I had read 110 books this year, with four months left to go. Sixty of the authors were women and fifty were men. I'm an ecumenical consumer.

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    1. Ann, you are so right. Me, too, when I find myself *noticing* the language I stop reading. The author should really be invisible.

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    2. Ann, I re-read a book I'd previously loved (not a mystery) where the word "peculiar" was used on almost every page, sometimes more than once. Drove me mad.

      Sometimes I think writing has ruined me as a reader. I can't stop noticing things.

      Mary/Liz

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    3. Writing definitely ruins reading. It also ruins listening - I listen to the newscaster say "Less than twenty people..." And I"m screaming "FEWER! FEWER!"

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    4. You're not alone in that yelling. :)

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    5. I'm yelling with you, Hallie! "If you can count it, it's fewer!"

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  8. Long ago I edited nearly a dozen books, including four men's adventure novels. (And yet I still don't know what the phrase, "f***ing A" means. It was repeated at least three times in each of those darn books.) The words "small" or "little" were, and are, overused.

    I'm more forgiving of tics, though, than of misuse of words. The past tense of lead is spelled led; it's not "pouring over the files", it's "poring over". Even the venerable New Yorker has committed the lead for led sin.

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    1. Karen, on small/little, my LEAST favorite similar adjective is petite. Not sure why, I just hate it.

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    2. I never say petite! So interesting… Because I kind of never thought of it. It seems somehow… Demeaning, you know?

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    3. Hmm. Unless you're describing petits fours!

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    4. Yes, demeaning. Exactly. When talking about a woman, which is how it's usually used.

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    5. So funny. I don't like petite, either, and don't think I've ever used it to describe a character. Or diminutive. How about just plain short? Or small? Or slight?

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    6. Although you could use the word "petite" in the context of a frantic woman at a department store, crying, "Where are the petities?" Other than that, I'm not sure.

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    7. Karen, Effing A means the same as "darn right!" or "that's right" or "absolutely".

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  9. Oh, I can related. I start so (ha!) many sentences with "so." And I do it in my casual writing, too (like emails and Facebook). Argh! Die, die, die!

    Ending a sentence with "right?" I think I cut four of them in page once. "Just" - I've overused this one. But when I try to replace them, I have to be careful I don't end up overusing "simply" or "only." Better to drop it completely.

    And as soon as I cut out one character tic (like shrugging or grinning), the characters seem to develop another. Fortunately, my critique group keeps me honest.

    Also, no matter how many conjugations of "to be" I cut out of my work, more creep in. Without my critique group I'd be doomed.

    Mary/Liz

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    1. Cut out "to be" words??? Aaaaggggh.

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    2. Unless you're talking about making passive voice active (one of my own pet peeves, intensified by the fact that I edit government documentation for a living), I don't think I understand the motive for not having instances of "to be."

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    3. As in: The boat was pushed by Mark... Instead of Mark pushed the boat
      That I get.

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    4. Textbook passive/active voice example. Thanks!

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    5. I tend to write a lot of “there was a case of flowers standing...” type things. A more active construction is “a vase of flowers stood...”

      I’m trying to show my setting more through how my characters interact with them but boy it’s easy to be lazy!

      Mary/Liz

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  10. I don’t like the use of “shrug” or “shrugged”. I have tried and tried and tried, but I cannot visualize someone shrugging into or out of an item of clothing.

    “Frown”, “frowned”, frowning”; a non JRW author used these words so often that I started making a list of them whenever I read a new book by her. In one book, I counted one or another of these words eight times in two pages. I suspect someone else noticed it, too, because she’s not doing it so much any longer.

    I don’t mind when authors use adverbs.

    In conversation I am guilty of overusing “a bit”, “well”, and “actually”, among other words.

    DebRo

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    1. Recently I read a story in which someone smirked at least once a chapter. It was off-putting.

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    2. "Smirked" is one of my personal ughs. How often do real people smirk? And please don't have a sympathetic character smirk. Draco Malfoy might, however...

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    3. How often do real people smirk? Can't say. But I watched Ted Cruz on tv and that smarmy hypocrite smirked his way through the Supreme Court hearing--and Karen, it was off-putting!

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  11. Can't believe I missed my chance to be second commenter this morning - I'm out of my routine, I guess.

    I've had books where everyone - everyone - was striding here and there. I way overuse shrug and lifting eyebrows. Also just. And so many more! One editor has trained me out of having characters start dialog with "Oh" - if he marks nothing else he red pencils every instance and I've finally learned just (see?) not to write it.

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  12. Interesting comments here on words --especially verbs -- one dislikes. Two that I personally and irrationally dislike are "grin" and "frown." I guess because I don't picture a real person doing either of those. "Grin" is something Pippi Longstocking might do, but not a real person. (That's just me, of course.) Likewise, what does a real person look like when they frown? The corners of the mouth turn down? Not really, not very often in real life does anyone pull that face. Oh, I could go on and on, but (as they say in the movie Airplane), I'd probably start to bore you! Funny how we all have certain words that we don't like, or try not to use.

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  13. I have to watch out for a tendency to overuse "looked." The characters "look" at each other--giving the reader a sec to catch the punchline, and infer what that look is all about. Going back now to my work-in-progress to see if I can take some of those out and be more creative instead.

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    1. I do, too! It’s difficult, isn’t it? Because you have to indicate where someone is looking… and how do you do that otherwise? But it is just a question of recognizing it. .

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  14. I've been guilty of many of the above, including so, well, turning, and probably most of the others.

    I don't mind shrugging or grinning or even both so much as "Her lips curved into a grin...or smile." And authors who use that phrase seem to use it a LOT.

    I also don't mind raised eyebrows so much as lifting an eyebrow. How many people can do that? Not me. And (starting sentence with and again, Deb) it's in SO many books!

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  15. So timely. I am starting a start-to-finish edit, or a few of them, tomorrow(!) One of mine, too, is certainly "just." I use it a a lot and it weakens almost every sentence. And there's way too much shrugging I need to look out for, too. Let's hear it for the Find feature in Word! (I remember essentials like Elmer's glue, scissors, and highlighters for editing)

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    1. I love word find to! How about really, very, and of course?

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    2. Of course really and very need to be found and eliminated ( or reduced, at least) :-)

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  16. Speaking of very… Mark Twain had a great trick. He said: every time you want to use the word very, use damn instead. Then your editor will take it out, and you’ll have your sentence the way it should’ve been in the first place.

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  17. One other thing that really bugs me and even the best writers to it. They have someone "burst out laughing." Every time I see that I am interrupted in the story because I start thinking of all the other ways they could have shown us without those 3 particular words. makes me wish I was still a teacher (not that that is the sort of thing I taught) because that would be a great assignment: come up with at least 10 other ways to say that.

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    1. I chuckled (!) at Hallie's response

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    2. I burst out laughing, then sniggered, and smirked.

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  18. I edit a series of e-books for a friend. She loves concurrent activities strung together with "as." I'm pretty ruthless about limiting that to once a sentence because I find it distracting otherwise. I generally suggest she split the sentence into two or more.

    This isn't so much a language tic, but something that is a personal issue for me is authors' using fat as shorthand for unpleasant (in myriad ways). There are a few authors whose writing I found compelling and whose characters I loved, but whose hatred of fat people was palpable and I had to stop reading them. There is one who, in the dozen or so books I read, had literally zero characters who were described as anything other than slim or slender that ranged from irritating to mean to spectacularly evil. It got to the point where it felt like a personal attack. I finally decided that s/he didn't need to be despoiled by my fat-tainted money.

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    1. Parallel structures... something to watch out for. My editor notices when I start too many sentences with the main character's name. It's easy enough to fix the you know it's happening.

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  19. Just guilty of just - and reaching. I use a program called ProWriter and it does help me weed overused words out in the first run before my critique partners get to them. URGH!

    James Clavell used the word perfect in his two volume novel Nobel House. He used it a lot and every time he used it, the word was perfectly used. To this day, the word in the correct context brings me comfort.

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  20. One author I otherwise enjoy insists on characters hissing sentences that contain no sibilants. "Hand me that wallet right now."cannot be hissed. Try it.

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    1. That makes me crazy! Even when there IS sibilance Im not a fan of 'hissed' as a dialogue tag. Teapots hiss. Snakes hiss.

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  21. I'm beginning to notice how many words I start with So. And there are lots I start with And or But as well. Like that last sentence there.

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    1. None of that's bad unless you do it too much.

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    2. That should have read, "how many sentences I start with So."

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  22. The one that really makes me crazy is "smirked." How many people really smirk unless they're nefarious characters? There's one author I like that uses that word too often and then I came across another. :-(

    janet

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    1. Yup, I agree - one 'smirk' per manuscript is enough. Also one "suddenly."

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  23. I can't think of one in particular that bothers me right now, but I seem to have developed a quirky habit when facial expressions are mentioned. If some is said to "raise her/his eyebrows" or "smirk" or look "shocked," or any facial expression, I make the expression myself, trying it out. Hahaha!

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  24. (1) Scream. When I read dialogue with someone engaged in a frustrating exchange and suddenly "screaming" complete sentences I am thrown out of the story. What does that look or sound like? Scream insults or the occasional "I hate you" or a scream of frustration but I cannot envision screaming cogent complex sentences. (2) crude language. I most enjoy authors who aren't afraid of vulgarities but use them well. A surprising or meaningful "f**k" is more effective for me than a persistent one. It seems to be shorthand as a characterization for a particular type.

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    1. Swear words... that's a whole other topic. In my opinion, there's always a better way to show the same thing.

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  25. Out of curiosity, do your characters look at the person they are talking to? Or do they glance away while talking? Or do they talk behind the person? I cannot imagine talking to someone without looking at the person.

    Diana

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    1. Ah! This is how to show someone might be lying... they avoid eye contact w the person they're talking to.

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  26. I’m in the rewriting stage (ugh, does this part ever end?!) and just discovered how much my characters mutter and whisper. I’m trying to shake it up a bit, changing some to “said” but also doing some grumbling, musing, wondering, etc. Even some complaining, but trying to avoid whines.

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    1. I stick to said and asked. And try to skip any tag at all when I can show who's talking with a bit of action on the same line.
      She slammed her glass down on the table. "You can't stop me."
      She leaned back in her chair and folded her arms across her stop. "You can't stop me."
      ...

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    2. Oops
      She leaned back in her chair and folded her arms across her chest. "You can't stop me."
      She grabbed his necktie and pulled him toward her. "You can't stop me."

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    3. Though it all pales compared to when the writer has gotten so arty that the reader can't tell who's speaking.

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    4. That completely pulls me out of the story.

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    5. Pulls me out of the story, too, Kate217 & Hallie. That “arty-ness” isn’t dialogue — it’s confusing narrative.

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  27. Elizabeth Linington AKA Dell Shannon AKA Lesley Egan wrote a lot of books, which I mostly enjoyed. What drove me nuts was that all her characters used "hostage to fortune" in reference to their families. Even in a historical novel! One character might use that phrase but not all.

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  28. I've noticed in interviews, when a person is asked a question, they begin their answer with "Right." and then go on. What? Why? The same thing with "sure". The word "actually" is so misused it's infuriating. When a character misuses it it stops me cold. "Actually" is another one. If it can be eliminated from the sentence without altering meaning, then delete!

    I'm reading Julia's IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER just now, and I'll be on the lookout!

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  29. There is one phrase that is used so very often in novels that I actually find absolutely repellent--and really all, I'm sure this is just a weird tic of mine. I hate it when a character "pops" something into their mouth! I just shudder and think, good way to choke, pal. And also, a brief comment on reading out loud or authors listening to their audiobooks. Every single author I've directed while they've narrated their book has said that they learned so much new about their writing! And we have authors write in saying the same thing after they've listened to their book done by one of the professional narrators we work with. It is such a very different experience than the written word.

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  30. "Miss Silver coughed."
    And coughed and coughed and coughed.

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  31. I can handle sipped.. but swig? pulls me right out of the book. Especially if the character swigs and then smirks about it. So?

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