Jul 09 2008
This short article will help beginning novelists avoid another five common mistakes that will usually cause publishers to throw out a manuscript.
21. Please avoid vague and meaningless adjectives and adverbs (good, fine, well, alright, etc.) These words are usually wasted space because they do not convey as much information as a more specific word. For example, instead of saying “Jane is a good writer,” you might say that she is hilarious, informative, exhilarating, frightening, cogent, creative, steady or precise. These words are far more powerful than “good” because they help the reader understand why Jane is good.
If you find these general words slipping into your writing, take a minute to think of a more specific substitute. If you can’t think of anything better, the line is probably dead space that should be removed. For example, when someone says “I’m doing well” in conversation, that’s usually a nicety that doesn’t really mean anything. If the character were actually trying to describe the state of his life, it would be far more effective to mention examples like the promotion he just got or that he just bowled his first perfect game.
22. Cut back on adverbs. Adverbs are usually weak writing because they tend to tell (rather than show) the reader what’s going on. For example, “Jane hit Yoshi hard” is not too evocative. Fortunately, you can usually replace an adverb with a stronger verb. Instead of telling us that Jane hit Yoshi hard, show us that detail by giving us a hard-hitting verb. “Jane slammed Yoshi.” Thwack! Similarly, instead of telling us that “John walked confidently up to the cop,” give us a verb that will help us visualize the action. “John swaggered” or “John sauntered toward the cop.” Replacing adverbs also tends to save space.
(PS: Nonfiction writers, please disregard this).
23. Please avoid cliche combinations of characteristics for races/species. Fantasy and science-fiction authors commonly create races that are similar to ones we’ve already seen before. For example, most varieties of elves are fair-delicate-sophisticated and I can’t count all the violent-stupid-warlike races I’ve seen. You can mix up your story by creating uncommon combinations of characteristics. For example, maybe your warlike race is actually the most scholarly and philosophical in the galaxy. Your readers will want to know why someone violent would be philosophical, of course, which gives you a great opportunity to develop the characters and draw readers into your universe. Also, a smart-and-warlike race will assuredly interest readers more than another race of orcs/Zergs/Krogans.
Here are some popular combinations of racial characteristics:
- Elves (fair, delicate, sophisticated, nature-loving, usually peaceful)
- Dwarves (stout, industrialized, ill-tempered, grumpy, hide-bound)
- Orcs (violent, stupid, war-like)
- Pixies/fairies (small, flitty, tricky)
- Hobbits/gnomes (short, friendly, heavily domesticated, pacifistic)
24. Brand names narrow your audience’s appeal and date your story. For example, if I mention that John is a Target customer, most of my readers won’t understand that I’m trying to show he’s upper middle-class. Readers from outside the Midwestern United States might not even know what Target sells, let alone who shops there. You can probably tailor your characterization more narrowly by trying to show the character in more absolute terms. If someone has owned his shoes for so long that the soles are worn through, he’s almost certainly poor. If he replaces his wardrobe every season “to be current,” he’s probably fantastically wealthy. Those details get us in the character’s mindset more than telling us where he buys those clothes.
25. Please avoid cliche visualization. When authors try to describe what a character looks like, they almost always focus on the eyes, hair and sometimes the scars of a character. (Scars are terribly cliche, particularly facial scars). Try to think outside the box when you’re visualizing the character. Does your character have any other prominent facial features? What do his clothes suggest about him and his lifestyle? How does he walk? How does he sit? When he interacts with people, does he have any unusual body language? What’s his quality of skin like? What’s the shape of his back like? (Mine’s badly curved from academic work). If he’s not human, does he have any distinctly nonhuman limbs? What purpose do those serve for his species? What do those look like?
This article was the fifth part of a series. If you’d like to read about how to avoid other common writing mistakes, you’ll find the links just below.