Thursday, October 10, 2019

Not Dear O'Abby

There were no questions for O'Abby this week, so I thought I'd do something a little different this week.

I've been doing a lot of beta reading and critiquing recently, and there are a few things I keep seeing in the various MS's I've been looking at.  So this week, let's take a look at some common mistakes people seem to make.

These are not developmental things (not this time, anyway), but writing things.  I know not all beta readers comment on these things, but I just can't help myself because bad grammar or misused words really throw me out of the story.  So here are a few things you could look for in your own work to make sure any reader you have isn't catapulted away from the action.

Sentence fragments.

These can be effective, but when overused, or used badly, they can really ruin the flow of the writing. I have read a couple of MS's recently where they were used constantly, and always without a verb in them.  And without a verb, the fragment not only didn't make sense, it didn't take the story anywhere. In most cases the fragment can be part of the preceding sentence where it makes grammatical sense.  Or just erased.  Or re-written into a full sentence.

Mis-used homonyms.

I blame spell-check for these, to some degree.  But when the same words are repeatedly misused throughout a manuscript, I have to think the writer doesn't know the difference between a cord and a chord or peek and pique.  This is where your early readers/crit partners are invaluable.

Unvaried sentences

Good writing has a rhythm and this is created by varying the length and structure of sentences.  I've read a couple of stories recently where almost every sentence and paragraph follows the same structure.  It makes the writing boring and lacks any sense to rhythm or motion.  You can create urgency and a sense of peril by using a lot of really short sentences in action sequences and slow things down by using longer, more languid ones in times of peace.  But the most important thing is to switch it up.  Try starting some sentences with a verb and seeing where that takes you.  If you notice you have a whole paragraph of sentences starting with 'I' when writing in first person, see if you can switch it up.  If all your sentences have two commas in them, see if you can break some of them into shorter sentences.  If you're using 'and' or 'but' a lot, see if there are ways to vary the sentences to get rid of a few.

Tense switching

Most books tend to be in either the present or the past tense.  But this can become complicated because people in the present look back at the past and people looking back to the past, live in the present.  Knowing which parts of the narrative to write in each tense can be difficult, but that's not an excuse to jump around, sometimes even within single paragraphs.  If you're writing in present tense and your characters are remembering something that happened previously, they can remember that event as past tense.  But any reactions they have to the memory will be in the present.  Likewise, if your characters are still living and your story is presented in a way where events of the past are being described, there may be occasions where you might use present tense to indicate a character is still the same, even now.  This is fairly difficult to do well...  Often it just comes across like you don't know what tense you're telling your story in.

And that's just a few of the things I've noticed recently.  Maybe next time there are no questions for O'Abby I'll talk about some of the developmental problems I've been seeing.

Until next time.

X O'Abby

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