When Some is Not Good

Yup, the title was meant to be confusing. But after you read this post, it will be somewhat clear, or sort of understandable, or a bit less confusing. Kinda. Sorta.

We, Maddi, are working on the last phase of our second book; the final scrub. Think cleaning grout. This includes finding and eliminating some extraneous words, like “some.” A search for the work “some” revealed 281 instances in the latest draft, including someone, sometimes, something, somewhat, somewhat and Somerset Sidebottom. Okay, that last one isn’t in this book. (Maybe Book 3?) I don’t know how we’d manage without the Find command, although I suppose we’d figure out “some” other way.

In addition to “some,” words common in conversation that too often slip into our writing include a few, a couple, sort of, kind of, very and really. (We did not, we are pleased to say, violate the 11th Commandmant: “thou shalt not say ‘very unique’: it is an abomination unto the Lord.” *) Even when we find these words in the conversation of our characters, we want to be careful about how many we leave in. For instance, it is easy to imagine one of our young characters saying something is “really interesting” or “really cool.” Leaving in the “really” indicates, if you didn’t already know it, that the character speaks in the common vernacular. But even if the character uses the word in every sentence, do you as a reader want to see it? No. After reading it once or twice, you get the idea and don’t need to be bombarded with it. The same applies to like, you know, umm and sorta.  

If searching and replacing extraneous words isn’t exciting enough, think of the joy of ensuring that spacing is correct. We admit (at least one of us does) to having learned to type pre-word processor when the protocol was to leave two spaces after a period to improve ease of reading. Hardly necessary today, when word processing programs automatically space letters and punctuation to improve readability. Old habits die hard, or in this case, aren’t dying; we will at time still double hit ye old space bar after periods, question marks, exclamation marks and closing quote marks. (The 12th Commandment, if anybody cares, is, “thou shalt not capitalize the start of thine independent clause after the use of a colon – what ist thou thinking? What idiot starteth this heinous trend?” **) 

Let us not forget the overuse of adverbs, which is common among writers. Oft-repeated advice is to review all adverbs (or if lazy, search for -ly words) and excise 90% of them. A controlled adverbocide, if you will. Clearly one should not automatically remove all adverbs, but carefully scrutinize their use to determine if they can be eliminated without dramatically changing the meaning. Indubitably, adverbs are frequently used by writers in lieu of writing action or movement into the narrative. They are often not necessary if you did your writing job correctly:  “Darryl, I just love your provocative low-cut loafers,” she said flirtatiously. (Darryl, it should be said, was hoping for more compliments on his tight T-shirt, given he just got pectoral implants in hopes of cherchez-ing more femmes.) 

Now that we are enjoying ourselves, we can take on the ‘easy’ word issue. These are words that easily come to mind when you’re writing that you throw into the narrative so you can continue with your brilliant thought. They survive draft after draft after draft. When cleaning up the story, you realize that this word appears … everywhere and adds almost nothing. Try eating no-calorie chocolate. Are you satisfied? That’s what these words are like. An example: looked. She looked in purse, then looked up and saw the man at the bar looking at her.  Look at how many times we used the word, look! (“Made you look!”) Our offenses are not that egregious, but the herd of “looked” (over 200 appearances at last count) has to be thinned. It’s time to give gaze, searched, examined, glanced and other worthy words (available through your on-line thesaurus) a chance. No leering, though — Emma isn’t that kind of girl. Even if Huw does look — er, appear — mighty fine in a wetsuit. Yes, indeedy. 

So if this is the last phase, you might ask, “When will the book be available?” We are hoping, but not committed to, the end of September. While this may be the last phase of writing, the publishing process has just begun. Decisions about book size, font, artist to use for the cover and more have been made (see the first book). But, our artist will not complete the front cover until mid-August, we have to put the manuscript in book form, check for widows, orphans and waterfalls, proof everything again and more. That process may take two month, or it may take longer. We’ll let you know how we are progressing and the fun we have along the way. 

 *Because “unique” means “one of a kind.” You can’t be “very one-of-a-kind,” yet this expression gets used all the time. Ick.

** OK, God does not actually talk like the King James Bible. He doesn’t sound like Charlton Heston, either. We are pretty sure He is a good grammarian, though, and uses proper English — er, proper Hebrew, Aramaic and Koinic Greek. You don’t see “whatever, dude” in the Bible, do you?

 

 

Critique Groups, or “I love (hate) your book”

One of the key literary questions all good writers ask themselves (pay attention: trade secret forthcoming) is “does my book suck?’ It’s good to get an answer to that question early enough as you slog your way through writing a mystery, for example, so that you can decide not only whom to kill off, but whether the book should get buried, too.

We’ve found that a good way to improve our writing is to work with a small group of other aspiring authors to critique each others’ work. These groups, as many authors have discovered, are essential for several reasons. The first, of course, is to have readers for your work, who  can point out the shortcomings in your writing (dialogue stilted, no sense of place, character behavior doesn’t make sense, way-too-convenient-and-utterly-implausible coincidences, boring-as-all-get-out plot) and point out what is working and what they like. These other authors can also help you fix the shortcomings through their suggestions for improving dialogue, descriptions, even little plot twists. A fresh pair of eyes, or two or three, will often hone in on just those things that you were worried about anyway, confirming that the book isn’t quite ready for prime time, but needs more work. (Maybe another dead body. Or more gratuitous sex.) Let’s face it: unless you have multiple personality disorder and have a second psyche lurking within, it’s very hard to be completely objective reading your own work.

Equally valuable is that through their affirmation of your work and tales of their own struggles and successes, other authors can encourage you to keep going. Having deadlines like “submit 10-15 pages for review every other week” also motivates you to stop thinking about writing and just put something on paper. Anything. (And we do mean paper: it’s really tough to critique an entire book on the computer screen.)

Need the others in the group be writing in the same genre? Our experience is no. One of us has been in groups with writers of science fiction, young adult, fictionalized memoirs, self-help, and fantasy. Even those who are not fans of your genre can provide key input. We once had a retirement-age male who admitted to an intense dislike of our main character. Nevertheless, he read our submissions closely, and found several inconsistencies not picked up by the others in the group who were, fortunately for one’s ego, much more outwardly supportive. (Should that be out-wordly supportive?). Mr. “I can’t stand your book” may have been grumpy and just trying to find things wrong, but he did provide a valuable service. (He wasn’t in our target market segment, anyway, which is a literary way of saying, ‘nanny, nanny boo-boo.’)

And that brings up another reason to join a critique group; by carefully reading the work of others, you will become a better writer. We believe this has happened to us. A fantasy writer we critiqued was very talented in describing the world of her story, which contained a number of creatures not found on earth, except perhaps in Hollywood back lots and nightmares. (Or possibly the Marianas Trench, which is still hiding some huge squids.  Oh, and Godzilla goes there on his summer vacation.) This author not only painted a picture, but also imbued it with vivid smells. Reading her story has impressed upon us the important role that smell plays in description.

It is helpful to be part of a group where the authors are at a similar stage of development because being able to share the non-writing aspects of an author’s life are also important. For instance, those authors at the very beginning can trade helpful hints about the process of writing: finding time, setting short term goals, outline versus character driven, number of words, and so forth. Authors further along are in the throes of attending conferences, looking for agents, or deciding whether and how to self-publish. And established authors have their own issues with publishers and agents. One such author recounted a story wherein she was complaining about such issues, and the unpublished authors in her critique group were rather unsympathetic: they were searching desperately for an agent and publisher, and thought anyone who had already published was in nirvana and should have no complaints.  When you are unemployed — and, alas, so many are these days — you want a job so you can complain about work like everyone else. So it is with unpublished authors.

As a pair of writers, we already function as a small group: regular feedback on what we’ve written, encouragement from one when the other frustrated with the writing, and so forth. Although I must admit, we’ve not had the experience where one of us has said “I can’t stand what you’ve written.” Nope, we don’t do that.  Putting rubber roaches in the other’s sugar bowl — absolutely.  Loathing the other’s writing — nope. Mostly, this is because in general we are on the same literary wavelength — common DNA will do that for you. But if one of us were to feel that way, we’d just quietly make changes, turning off the track changes so the other would never know what happened. We both have extensive experience from childhood denying that we, in fact, Did Something. It must have been the dog; after he ate my homework.