Tag Archives: guidance on writing a novel

The Telltale Taboos

“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” – Mark Twain

The revision continues, so this is just a quickie.  That’s right, I’m gonna just love ya then leave ya, blog-slut that I am…

I’ve done a once-over combing through my manuscript and trimmed out a few thousand words so far.  As I still contemplate how I’m going to tweak that damn ending—sorry, I mean “very” ending—no, I mean “damn” ending—no, I mean just “ending,” period ;)—I’m approaching another wave.  But before I do another complete read-through, I’m strategically using my Word application’s “Find” tool to seek out and evaluate the use of a few common culprits that threaten to weaken our writing.

While there are many ways to slice-and-dice revision (including eliminating those adverbs and “to be” verbs), here’s a sample of overused, taboo words to check for in your manuscript as a quick-fix:

very

always

really

when

then

that

suddenly

just

began / started (With these, don’t use it if whatever is “beginning/starting” doesn’t stop before the action is carried out. Oh my gaawwd, I can’t believe how many ‘began’s I’ve found…naughty Monkey!)

For what that’s worth.  It’s not to say we shouldn’t use these words at all, just not overly so—it’s worth a scan to become cognizant of our usage and determine whether there isn’t a more direct, active means of engaging our reader through other word choices/sentence structure.

Also [I’m adding this retroactively in response to Sharmon’s good point in the comment below], I personally reduced those words in my 3rd-person narration, but left most of them in my dialogue, as those words are likely overused in our writing because they’re what we use often when we speak!  So, it’s arguable from that standpoint that they contribute toward authentic dialogue, no?

What words would you add to the list?

[As an aside, can’t help but share that the Mark Twain quotation reminds me of a time from my consulting days when the guy in the cubicle across from mine started swearing, walked away, then promptly returned with a colleague.  “Fix it,” he said to the guy, pointing at his computer.  Our friend/coworker giggled as he did so.  Afterwards, I learned that the guy had tampered with my cubicle-mate’s Word settings such that every time he typed the word “the” in his client report, it auto-corrected to, well, a term for male genitalia.  Ah, Finance wasn’t always so boring…]


What Happens in a Meadow at Dusk?

“[L]ong before the child learns to talk properly—and long before it learns to think philosophically—the world will have become a habit.  A pity, if you ask me.”  – Sophie’s World

I’m currently reading a book that I’ve had sitting on my bookshelf for years.  I literally moved it across an ocean two years ago, and still it had sat mutely, patiently, until I finally plucked it out and cracked it open a few days ago:  Sophie’s World.  I’m only a quarter of the way through it, so will withhold offering a critique, but so far I’m enjoying the questions it raises—it’s essentially taking your own correspondence course in philosophy, without getting graded 🙂    Less than twenty pages in, I was struck by the above quotation…I hadn’t really reflected on how the world becomes a “habit” as we age:

“The world itself becomes a habit in no time at all.  It seems as if in the process of growing up we lose the ability to wonder about the world.  And in doing so, we lose something central—something philosophers try to restore.  For somewhere inside ourselves, something tells us that life is a huge mystery.  This is something we once experienced, long before we learned to think the thought.”

At this point, the “philosopher” instructing our protagonist, Sophie, has been pointing out how infants and young children look about at everything surrounding them with wonder, getting excited about even the little things we adults come to take for granted through familiarity.

I’m not going to wax philosophical on this, but what it did make me think about is how writers seem to be blessed with the ability to behold the world with that same wonder we did as children.  We have to, really, in order to continue creating our own little worlds. 

The writer is someone for whom a bus ride is not merely from Point A to Point B; rather, it’s an exercise in character study as we little voyeurs observe those in such close proximity that it almost seems weirder to pretend that they’re not there (as the masses do on the London Underground…the eye aversion is almost unbearable – and on sidewalks, too!  This Chi-town gal misses eye-contact *sigh*).  Anyways, we watch these people, speculate on where they’re going, where they’re coming from, what their whole backstory might be.  We get ideas in our noggins as to the perfect character to insert into our current tales or on which to base a whole new novel…all thanks to paying some attention to the real people right under our noses.

We notice subtleties, the body language that suggests insecurities or the butterfly that carries so many metaphors aloft the breezes of its wings.  We notice with a painter’s eye that the clouds aren’t just white and that the sofa is illuminated differently when the sun shines in from that late-afternoon angle.  We notice the people who smile to themselves when they think no one’s looking and that a tree can look sad, hopeful, or maternal.  We notice what a gust of fresh air feels like in our lungs, through our hair, and the new story ideas that the sensation can conjure.

We can describe what happens in a meadow at dusk.

We behold the world with wonder, and the beauty is that not only are we richer for it, but we have the calling that compels us to write it down so that others might experience the world through our eyes and look at it as though for the first time through their own.  There is not always beauty in this awareness; in fact, we may reveal the darker sides of humanity and tell gritty, disturbing stories without that happy ending.  But what there will always be is Truth – I’m talking the capital ‘T’ truth so long as we write, to the best of our abilities, what it is we wonder at through our genuine voices.  That is what makes a story authentic and universal, for something has told us that “life is a huge mystery,” and now that we can think the thought, we can write it.


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