Words to Avoid and Why (a.k.a. Newbie Writing Mistakes #1)

Hello everybody! Today I would like to speak to you about words, specifically words you should avoid while writing your stories. You might ask why should you avoid certain words? Isn’t writing a form of self-expression? Isn’t there no one right way to write? While that’s true, there is no one right way to write, there are tons of weak ways to write. One guaranteed way to strengthen your writing is to apply the $1 per word analogy I learned from Carol Lynch Williams.

The $1 per word analogy.

First, let’s pretend you’ve been given $80,000 to write a novel. Yay!

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Just look at all that money!

However, there’s a catch. You have to spend that money on writing the story, and each word costs $1. If you go over then the money for the extra words comes out of your pocket, but if you stay under then you can save the money for future stories. In that case you’d want to choose your words carefully, right?

I would.

Don’t worry, the payment for the words doesn’t come until you start submitting to agents and editors, so you have time to trim down and strengthen your novel in every draft.

However, you can save yourself some future effort if you avoid certain words from the start. These are the weak ones that hinder your story and keep it from breathing. The ones that make agents and editors look at your story and say:

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And then proceed to drop you off the building and never give you a second thought.

So what are these words? Okay, okay, I’ll tell you.

Chief words to avoid.

They are (drumroll): “ly” adverbs, be verbs, be-ing phrases, begin/start, that, just, finally, creative dialogue tags, and unnecessary repetition. (This list subject to grow as more words come to my attention.)

Let’s go through them and discuss why.

“ly” Adverbs

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Credit:  Logophilius Editorial LLC You can go read their article about adverbs as well.

You know what they are, those conditioning words people like to stick by their verbs. There are three kinds of “ly” adverbs: defining, affirming, and expounding. The first two are bad, and the third is iffy.

  1. Defining adverbs. This is where the writer chooses a weak verb and then needs to further explain the action taking place. Examples: walked quickly and looked lovingly. You can replace all of these with strong verbs like “sprinted” and “gazed.” Save your dollars by exchanging these weak two-word verbs for strong single ones.
  2. Affirming adverb. These are redundant adverbs since they repeat something inherent in the connotation of the verb. Examples: dodged nimbly, trudged slowly, angrily stormed. One must be nimble to dodge, trudging is a slow action, and is there really any other way to storm than with anger? Don’t spend your dollars on redundancy.
  3. Expounding adverbs. These are where the adverb adds to an already strong, or at least not-weak, verb. They give details that aren’t inherent in the verbs meaning. Examples: inhaled deeply, groaned loudly, changed quickly. As they stand these phrases are concise and precise. They are okay, and can be left as-is in your manuscript. However, they lack punch or emotion. They’re uninteresting. That’s what makes them weak. Strengthening sentences with expounding adverbs is one exception to the $1 per word trimming method. There’s no way to make them better, other than losing the adverb and the tiny detail it gives, without adding words. These are good places to put similes and metaphors to liven up your writing.

Now, you might be asking, “But, Senpai, if the third type is okay and we’re trying to save our dollars, why would we add metaphors?” Well, it’s more about choosing the best way to spend your dollars and not just being cheap. Better ingredients cost more, but make a better tasting cake. It’s worth it to spend a little more in some places as long as you make sure what you add to the story is strong and pushes everything forward.

“But Senpai, I like adverbs! They’re part of my voice!” That’s okay, as long as you use them sparingly. Certain genres are more forgiving of adverbs than others. Do your research to make sure your use of adverbs fits the genre you’re writing for. However, your writing will become stronger if you trim them out. Practice writing without them first. Then, if you still desire to use them after you have that down, you can introduce them back in a way that won’t hinder your story.

Be Verbs

Am, is, are, was and were, be, being, been.

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They’re dull and lack any depth, emotion, or impetus to move the story forward. They’re passive voice. Be verbs tell instead of show, which readers frown upon in most cases. You can replace ninety percent of be verbs with action verbs.

Also, see the “Unnecessary Repetition” section below.

Be-ing Phrases

He was chasing tadpoles. She had been reading all afternoon. Gregory was laughing so hard that milk came out his nose.

Be-ing phrases can ALWAYS be replaced with a single-word action verb.

He chased tadpoles. She had read all afternoon. Gregory laughed so hard that milk came out his nose.

They cost you $2 where you should be paying one. Also, be-ing phrases distance the subject and reader from the action taking place. They are never necessary. Avoid them like the plague.

Began/Start

This is another thing I learned from Carol Lynch Williams. Adding any form of “began” or “start” before an action distances the character from the action, is passive, and slows the story down. Let your character get to the action. Don’t distance them from it. Don’t use “began” or “start” for any action done by your protagonist.

This doesn’t mean you never use them in other ways, but you shouldn’t use them in the immediate moment of the story. Examples of okay use are “When the war started,” or “I knew something was up when Jane started acting out.” Note that these either reference things in the past or a character other than the protagonist.

That

It’s a filler word for the most part. It is needed, but not near as much as you think. Write without it and then put it back in where needed.

Just

“Just” is an overused expounding adverb. It’s often unnecessary. You can make the argument that “just” helps add a degree of meaning, and that is true. Sometimes using “just” will add to your sentence/story, but only if you use it sparingly so it retains some punch. Use it all the time and it becomes meaningless.

Finally

True, “finally” is an adverb and I’ve already addressed those. However, I feel that “finally” is a special word that deserves proper attention and respect. There is a sense of relief and comfort that comes from this word. It’s actually a very strong word and I do believe it should be used AT THE END of a story, and then maybe just once.

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“Finally” is a power word. Overusing it cheapens the impact it should have, so save it for the end when the emotions and consequences are highest and it can have the most influence.

Creative Dialogue Tags

Remember how your high school teachers taught you that you should get creative with your dialogue tags? People don’t just “say” things. They shout, gripe, postulate, roar, insinuate, and all sorts of other things, right? They claimed that using “said” was boring and uncreative.
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Your high school teachers were wrong.

Creative dialogue tags pull your reader out of the story and force them to reimagine what just happened. “Said” blends in and is near invisible, the reader’s eye skims over it and they stay in the story. Or you can attribute dialogue to characters by association to action. Readers will connect the latest action to the following dialogue. That’s the truly invisible dialogue tag.

Creative dialogue tags are also redundant if you’re writing right. The action and description of the scene around the dialogue should already let the reader know what kind of intonation and volume the characters are using. There’s no need to be redundant and state the tone and volume again with a dialogue tag.

You are allowed to use “whisper” and I’d say maybe “scream,” SPARINGLY, but I recommend using them as action association instead of as tags.

Unnecessary Repetition

Avoid repetition on the page. Having too many of a type of spelling or word on a page, especially when they’re close together, trips up the reader and slows the story down. This applies to all words.

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For example, I told you in the previous section to stick to “said” instead of a variety of dialogue tags. When there’s a lot of dialogue and you’re only using dialogue tags, then there will be a lot of “saids” on the page. “Said” becomes a little less invisible when there’s a lot of it. That’s one reason why it’s important to use action association with dialogue. Mix it up a little.

Avoid using the same words multiple times in close sentences. For example, you don’t want to end two sentences in a row with the same word. The start of sentences is more forgiving, but it’s also best to avoid starting two sentences with the same word. The same applies to the subjects and verbs of the sentences, not just their starting or ending words. This is another reason to avoid be verbs. If you rely on be verbs, then you’re going to have a ton of the same word in a paragraph. It’s boring and slows down the reading experience.

You can use repetition for poetic or symbolic reasons, but again, this should be done sparingly and only after you’ve learned how to play within the rules.

Parting words on the subject.

Applying the $1 per word analogy and avoiding these particular words in your writing will strengthen your skills as a writer. However:

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Learn these principles, apply them, then find your own voice and build on it. Once you know how to write well you can break the rules in masterful ways, BUT not until you’ve mastered writing within the “rules.” Even after that you still need to follow the guidelines to make sure your writing doesn’t fall apart and your diversions from it can shine.

Now go forth and write!

Love,
Your Writing Senpai

Writing Notes #4 – LTUE & Writing Excuses – What Makes Good YA

Some of this comes from LTUE and some of it comes from the Writing Excuses podcast Season 2 Episode 2 “Writing for Children with Brandon Mull.”

What is YA?

First of all, let’s define what exactly the YA genre is.  It overlaps with Middle Grade and New Adult (which is a new genre working on blooming at the moment).  The main thing that determines which of these genres your story fits will be the age of your protagonist.  For YA it can range from 14-18.  New adult targets the ages 18-30.  But what about 12 & 13, you might ask, aren’t they teens also? Well, they’re middle grade. (And actually, 13 is a tricky age publishers hate and work hard to avoid, so it’s just best to make your protagonist 12 or 14 most of the time.) An easy way to break it down is that middle school is middle grade, and high school is YA.  Anything after high school is probably New Adult.

YA can then be further sub-divided into the genres you see in adult fiction. Examples: romance, science fiction, historical fiction, fantasy, and so on. In adult fiction these genres have strict rules to divide them, but in YA these rules become blurred and sometimes non-existent. YA is a very fluid, plastic genre where anything goes.

So, really the only key to writing good YA is to know how to write a good story tailored to your audience. That brings up the question:

How do you tailor a story to a teenage audience?

I have some tips and things for you to remember that should help with that.

1. DON’T BE PREACHY.

I know you might want to teach teenagers and young adults important life lessons, but nobody wants to be lectured or preached to, especially teenagers.  We go to church and school for that.  That’s not usually why we read.

Remember WHY kids read.  YA is the genre where the readers start choosing the stories for themselves instead of having the stories handed to them by their parents.  They will put your book down if it doesn’t satisfy their needs and desires for reading.  Personally, I read and write to have fun, to feel emotion, and to be moved by something deep.  Other people read to escape harsh reality, have a laugh, experience romance, or one of many other reasons.  None of those reasons include getting preached to.

However, that doesn’t mean your story can’t teach a lesson.  It does mean that when you teach a lesson it has to be deep in the story as a guiding theme.  Be subtle.  Show and don’t tell.  Let it be a natural part of the story, more like a side-effect than the main purpose.  They’ll get it and appreciate you not rubbing it in their face.

2. Make the characters memorable.

What makes a memorable character? Don’t worry. I’ll write a post entirely on that and link to it here when I do.

3. It doesn’t have to have a romantic subplot.

Really, it doesn’t. There’s more to life than romance and sex, and some people don’t even have that on their radar. They don’t care and don’t want to read about it.

The world is already bursting with stories about sex. We could use more stories about different things.

4. How important is family?

It depends on if it adds conflict. Ever wondered why so many protagonists are orphans? Well, if those protagonists had happy safe family lives at home they might not have ever left on whatever epic quest their story took them on. Harry Potter wouldn’t have ever needed to face Lord Voldemort if his parents hadn’t died. Simba would have happily grown up a spoiled child at pride rock if Scar hadn’t killed Mufasa. Think of some other stories about orphans or children with one parent. If they had a complete happy family, would their story ever happen? Probably not.

Every aspect of a story needs to add conflict and push the plot forward. Most often a happy home life doesn’t do that. An unhappy home life, however, does. Families can be an important part of the main character’s conflict. If having a family will make the protagonist’s journey more difficult, then by all means add one in! Dealing with family can be an entire story or character arc of it’s own. There’s no need to avoid letting your main character have a family as long as it doesn’t detract from the story. If it does, get rid of it or change it until it helps instead of hinders.

5. Teenagers can carry the world on their shoulders.

YA needs to deal with problems that affect young adults, but young adults deal with a lot. Their external issues  can be anything from battling inter-dimensional space dragons to save the world, being a teen parent or oldest sibling who has to take care of their family, to taking out the non-metaphorical trash. Some teens deal with “normal” teen issues, while others have to be adults before their time. The important thing to remember is that while their external issues might be the same as an adult’s, they will be dealing with them with the mind of a teenager. Their internal issues need to match their metal age. Even mature teens are still teens.

This doesn’t mean you downplay their mental reasoning or maturity. Teenagers see themselves as grown up and mature, so treat your character that way. I liked the way Bryce Moore put it while speaking in the LTUE panel:  “However old you are is the oldest you’ve ever been, so you’re mature, dang it!”

6. Diversity is cool! (Except for when it isn’t.)

Diversity helps make your story more interesting and unique. By adding diversity you broaden your own mind view as well as the view of your audience and make the world a better place. At least, that’s the theory. If abused and used when it shouldn’t be then diversity becomes a gimmick and fails to benefit your story.

So don’t treat diversity like vegetables in a meal. You know what I mean, with that “I have to eat them because they’re healthy” attitude so you stick them in everything.

Just because diversity is cool and something people are pushing for doesn’t mean you have to add it to your story. Don’t force it if it isn’t right. You don’t have to add a multicultural character just because it’s what’s expected. That does your story and people of other cultures or backgrounds an injustice. For example, I have a story based in Colorado. There are almost no people of color there, so adding in a black person just for the sake of diversity would be wrong. It would go against the setting. (And hey, it’s already got werewolves and other magic beasts. Do I really need to add anything?) However, in my sci-fi story based in a futuristic space station game center, making everyone white would be wrong. That setting requires a large diversity of cultures, skin-types, and species (like aliens!).

Diversity in your story can be subtle or complex and up-front. Find things that are different and cool about the location and culture of the area and make them an integral fun part of the book. If diversity will add to your story, then great! If it doesn’t, don’t worry about it.

That doesn’t mean you should just shrug diversity off and never worry about it. Seriously consider diversity for your story and whether or not it will work. If you want to make your story more diverse, but don’t see a way to with your setting then ask yourself what you can change. Would a change of location help? Maybe instead of basing your story in bleached white no-name USA, you could take it to New Orleans, Chicago, Cuba, or even Canada. Or you could change the time period. You could even change the race of your main character (which might require a location change). There’s a multitude of ways to add diversity.

Just make sure to thoroughly research whatever type of diversity you’re putting into your story. You don’t want to make/encourage stereotypes. That defeats the purpose. If you’re going to have diversity in your story, then do it justice.

Also, secondary world fantasy is a cool, growing genre to consider. What’s that? Well, it’s fantasy based on cultures other than the standard western medieval ages. A good example is Drift by M. K. Hutchins. Personally, I love stories like this and want to read more. I will write at least one someday.

And that’s it!

So there you have it. Six things to remember to help yourself tailor your story to a teen audience. Now go forth and write!

-Writing Senpai

Hi! I’m back!

Sorry for being absent. I’ve been working on a movie, writing on my novel and webcomic, and then moving across the continent into another country. I am now in Canada and am still unpacking and still super behind on everything, but it’s time to change that!

I have several posts for you in very rough first drafts. Look for them here over the next few weeks.

Writing with Goals

Hi! Long time no see. 😛 I took on a freelance visual effects job recently that I thought would last for two weeks and then stretched out to almost six months. It ate my time. Sorry for the absence, but I’m back now!

And I wish to return with a word or two about writing with goals. Sure, all these tips and advice are great help, but they won’t do you any good without a goal, a SMART goal. What is a SMART goal, you might ask? Well, it’s a goal that works because it’s: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-bound.

Goals like, “I’m going to write a book!” are great and all, but in order to achieve them they need to be broken down into SMART goals, like NaNoWriMo’s “Write 50,000 words in 30 days.” That fits all the requirements. Fifty thousand words in a month is a very big goal, though, one I don’t recommend doing on a regular basis, but 20-30 thousand might be more doable.

You might be saying, “Well yes, Senpai, writing 20k words a month sounds like a good goal, but what about all the other aspects of writing a story?” All aspects of writing a novel, comic, or other type of story can be broken down into SMART goals to help you keep moving forward. You can plot out your story to a pre-made structure or method in a month, or develop a character a day. If you’re not a word-count kind of person you could write a scene per week, or decide on a time minimum to write every day.

Not only do SMART goals help you move forward, they give you something to look forward to accomplishing. Once you achieve your goal you can take a moment to celebrate before moving on to the next SMART goal. Don’t party for too long, though. Once you get your novel written there’s revision, querying agents, and other things you can make SMART goals for to help you achieve that nebulous goal of getting published!

My friend Whitney recently wrote about how she’s using SMART goals to help herself in her writing.

Go, write, win!

Your Writing Senpai

A Moment of Freedom

So, remember my WIFR post? Remember the post I did just before it where I mentioned being so excited to be done with a job and focus on writing and arting? Well, just before WIFYR I got called back in again to that job. I returned to it right after WIFYR. NOW it is finally done. I am free. And with that freedom I spent the last two and a half weeks helping a friend re-roof a little shed-barn-thing, played Guild Wars 2 like a maniac, and overall avoided being productive. Yay? I felt like my brain needed a break. That, and staring into the future of no required work and a boundless list of potential projects left me feeling a little lost.

Okay, maybe a lot lost.

But hey, I want to get back on track and working. I’m doing projects now! I have the script for the first three chapters of my webcomic figured out and waiting for review from an esteemed beta reader, my story timeline for the series I’m working on is now falling into place, and I have the starts of a Journey cosplay. I also got all my Brilliance in Action comics all queued up on the new comic website and it will be updating on it’s own through December! Go check out the new site: here. It still needs a header image, but it’s so much better than the site I had before.

Stay tuned for more posts from me! Hopefully I’ll have more time? No promises, though. I did apply today for a seasonal position at a local farm, so I might be working again soon. 😛 There’s stuff I still need money to pay for.

WIFYR 2015

I’m trying to get back in the swing of things now that WIFYR is over.  However, I got called back in to that freelance gig for a couple more weeks.  I agreed since I know it’s very close to done, but it does postpone my ability to be a full-time comic artist and author.  I will be there soon, though!  Sooooooon!

So, WIFYR.  It was great.  I saw my wonderful teachers and friends Carol Lynch Williams and Jake Parker.  I got hugs from both of them.  I like hugs.  In fact, Carol demanded I give her 80 hugs over the course of the week, so I made sure to hug her every time I saw her.  I think I only managed around 21 hugs.  I’ll do better next time!

I took a boot camp novel workshop with David Farland as the instructor.  There were ten other people in the class as well, and we critiqued the first 55 pages of all of our novels.  It was a humbling and enlightening experience.  They critiqued my stuff on the first day, and I totally thought I could handle it, and I did.  It was great.  All the verbal comments made sense and I could see the trend of what I needed to fix in my story.  However, then I got home and read the written comments.  It destroyed me.  I never thought I’d cry from being critiqued, but I did.  After reading comments from half the class I felt like I’d failed as an author.  My story seemed so very, very broken.  The next day I attended a panel on revisions and then it dawned on me that my story isn’t broken, it’s just a work in progress.  Then the day after that I read another written critique from a classmate and they understood every part of my story.  I didn’t fail.  That helped me feel a lot better.  As long as someone who knew nothing before reading it understood it, I succeeded.  Now to make it accessible to more people, after I finish this draft.

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Here’s me and David Farland! He’s holding my sword. I brought it to show off the last day of class.

I also had the opportunity to practice pitching to an editor, and then to get a practice query letter critiqued by the same editor and an agent.  I received a lot of helpful input, and the editor asked me to send her my manuscript when I’m done!  EEEEEEEE!  I think that made my week.

Overall I had a great time.  I’m definitely going again next year.

Summary of the Last Two Months

Hi everyone!  The last two months have been busy.  The next two weeks will also be busy.  I’m attending Writing and Illustrating For Young Readers (WIFYR) in two weeks and I have a bunch of stuff to do in order to prep for that.

So, the last two months.  I worked at a slow but steady pace on my novel, succeeded at NaNoWriMo camp, rearranged my studio (still in the process of that), and visited Texas for a cousin’s high school graduation.  The freelance job I took up lasted two and a half months instead of two weeks, so I’m a bit behind on everything and where I wanted to be at this point in the year, but it was good.  It gave me enough money to buy some protective equipment for my new HEMA hobby AND a shiny new professional artist level printer.

This month I plan on trying to catch up as much as possible around preparing for and attending WIFYR.  It will be a challenge, but I am so ready to get back to arting and writing as a career.

A Laundry Mystery

Soooo, I was trying to figure out why my sheets weren’t getting dry in my parent’s dryer.  This morning I ran my new sheets through my washer and then remembered Dad wants me to use their dryer because he realized my dryer vent is venting to someplace inside the house instead of outside like it’s supposed to.  So I ran up and stuck them in their dryer as I left for church.  Upon arriving back home I discovered the sheets still wet.  I figured they’d just gotten too tangled up, so I pulled them apart and stuck the fitted sheet back in.  Once the machine finished the sheet remained wet.  This confused me.  It was evenly damp.  No part had dried at all.  Was the machine broken?  I asked my parents and they gave suggestions, so I stuck it back in and changed the settings.  Then, as I watched my cat watch the machine start up with anxious curiosity (he’s not allowed upstairs without an escort), it dawned on me.  That was the washing machine, not the dryer.

Oops.

So now my new top sheet and pillowcases have been washed twice, and the fitted sheet thrice.

They’re all in the dryer now.

It’s Camp Time!

Camp NaNoWriMo that is.

For those of you who don’t know, NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month.  It happens in November and you aim to write 50K words in one month to get well on your way to having a novel.  Camp NaNoWriMo happens twice during the summer (April and July) and it used to be exactly the same.  This year they’re letting you set your own goals.  Since I still have that VFX job going on and some major editing to do in the next ten days for a workshop, I set my goal for revision and 20,000 words.  I’m still behind, but that’s okay.  I’m going to do a lot of catching up today.

An update on the sword equipment.  All of it was too cheap, thin, or didn’t fit, so I’m sending it all back.  I’m going to wait to build up some money and shop around at local sports and motorcycle stores before making my next purchase.  Anything worthwhile costs a lot.