5 Common Mistakes Authors Make that Cause Readers and Pesky Editors to Barf Out Loud

We have been discussing use of passive voice and one of the indicators of passive voice, the verb was, and I thought the topic warranted an expansive discussion. (As a side note: I initially wanted to write that sentence as “I thought an expansive discussion was warranted.” Do as I say, not as I do! I struggle daily with passive voice.)  You see, a few decades passed since I last attended a grammar class, and what you see here is the result of reading for forty-two years rather than careful correction by a small horde of English teachers. You’d think I’d be better at it. Reading and writing, that is.

English classes are dull.  The discussion of parts of grammar is dull. This kills it for me, right up to the point where I’m violating that grammar rule and need an answer. For that, we have the internets.

Here’s my list of mistakes authors make that cause readers to barf out loud:

1. Passive Voice.  Sure, it’s evil, all the time, and should be killed wherever it appears.

Or… not.  “By heavens, what, Pontius, are you saying?” you exclaim. I’ll elaborate.

Over here at Now Novel, there’s a post about passive voice. They say:

  • Passive voice error I – Many people make common grammar mistakes by assuming that a passive sentence is any sentence that uses a form of the verb “to be.” In fact, passive voice is simply a sentence in which the object appears as the subject of the sentence. The house was built in 1825.
  • Passive voice error II – Many people believe passive voice is always bad. In fact, passive voice can be used effectively to convey a certain rhythm or mood. It is also unavoidable when the person or thing that performed an action is unknown as in the previous example with the house.

There you go. Permission to use the passive. When your editor screams, tell her that Now Novel said it was okay to “be used effectively to convey a certain rhythm or mood.” And my mood is that I like writing in the passive.

The object appears as the subject of the sentence. That’s simple enough to eliminate, right? When they put it that way, it’s dead simple. I spend much of my time reversing these.

2. As If, so as to, in order to. No, Cher, not your retort in Clueless. Explaining too much. “What’s too much?” asks the head shrinker. “One person’s too much could be your just enough.” Fah, therapy! The Editor’s Blog explains.

Explaining too much or too often. Unless readers can’t possibly catch on without help, writers shouldn’t be explaining dialogue or actions. Tip-offs for explanations are phrases such as “so as to” and “in order to” and “as if.” If you find yourself writing sentences such as He peeked through the blinds to see who was inside the room or He said it with a little-boy voice so she wouldn’t take it too hard, you’ll want to make changes. Readers are smart—let them read intent and meaning into actions and dialogue.

Fix: Don’t explain. Make the action and dialogue convey the message. Search for words that introduce explanation and then rewrite.

This isn’t one I do.  Maybe. I think I need to go check it, now.

3. Commas make us barf. If you forget to put one in, it bugs us so much we’re sick. Really.

Sometimes you do a sentence, you do another.

That,  right there, is an evil comma splice! Kill it! Shoot it! You can either put a period in there, or stick in a connective conjunction. Connective conjunctions are for, as, by, or, and, nor, yet, and but. Go ahead, put one after the comma, and eliminate your lousy run-on sentence. Feel better now?

4. Adverbs. If it ends in ly, as Mark Twain says, just burn it with fire. I’m not sure where this hatred of adverbs stems from, but it’s real and you’d better be prepared to defend every one to the death. Your editor has a steak knife named “deathly.” And another named “Hallows.” Your editor likes Harry Potter a little too much.

5. Commas. Again. Use commas to separate more than two subjects, but don’t use them to keep the two subjects apart. It’s not

The author, and his editor were intensely sick.

Instead, it’s

The author and his editor were intensely sick.

If you want to use commas, add someone to the scene.

The author, his editor, and his wife’s therapist were intensely sick.

Don’t separate two actions of a subject with a comma.

No comma between the subject and its predicate. You’ll make it sad.

The world of commas needs a lot more than two lousy points, but I get fired up on this. I’m passionate about comma usage. I want to see you all employ those suckers with love, control, and joy.

What are the words and phrases you can’t wipe out of your own writing? What are the rules behind them?

Clint Agrees.
Clint Agrees.

Motivational Reaction Units

I wrote about 600 words last night, and I was attempting to use the Motivational Reaction Units (MRU) style.  The idea is that the narrative follows this format:

Event (motivation) happens. It’s something that anyone in the room or scene could see or hear or sense. For example, Elsa, Anna, and Olaf walked into the room.

Characters react instinctively; then with thoughts; then words.
The protagonist first reacts instinctively. Taylor threw up her hands. This happens first because it’s the natural reaction, the instant reaction.
What is that? she thought.
Then she finds her voice: “A walking, talking snowman?” she asked.

Let’s view that as one unit:
Elsa, Anna, and Olaf walked into the room. Taylor threw up her hands. What is that? Taylor thought. “A walking, talking snowman?” she asked.

Then you repeat the format. What would happen next in a scene where a young pop singer meets the cast of Frozen and they’re real? Remember the format:
Instinctive reaction.

By making up these motivational-reaction-units, you will create strings of an interesting narrative, in the sense that each one will move the story along in a brisk manner. Taking the elements out of order is jarring to the reader. The order is exactly how it would be done in a movie. You don’t hear speech and then see a reaction. It’s the other way around.

Sure, it’s easy to say, but does it work?  And does great literature employ it? What about great fiction? If I go to Mr. Tolkien’s opus and try to match this method up to his fiction, is the template going to fit, or did he do something different? You’re saying, but, but, that’s TOLKIEN, dude, that’s different, he can break rules because he’s the man.  So what? Does he have a good commercial sales technique, does he employ MRUs or not?  And if he does something different, why does it work and what is his method?

And does any combat vet pan his books by saying, “Tolkein doesn’t know squat about cavalry charges, everyone knows who’s done one that it isn’t like what he wrote.” or “Helm’s Deep was totally unrealistic, I fight in the SCA and that’s not how combat really is.”

As a side note, the Hobbit clearly doesn’t utilize the Scene/Sequel format.

Back to MRUs. I am doing my best with them, but then my characters want to talk to each other and it doesn’t fit the MRU template.  Maybe it does.  Is this a format you have attempted, and if so, was it successful or was it an exercise?