Sunday, December 28, 2014

The health care industry is robbing us blind. Fight back!

Spring forward/fall back:

Instead of opening your scenes with narration, use what I call (for want of a better term) the “spring forward/fall back” narrative device. A span of time usually passes between chapters and scenes. That’s the reason for those white-space breaks in the text. When you push the story forward to another point of action in a new chapter or scene, you should get the new scene going and then recap events that occurred in the interim, if you need to, quickly summarizing what happened since the end of the previous scene. In other words, you “spring forward,” then “fall back” briefly, and then pick up the action again. You do this to skip some boring stuff—or at least some less than compelling material that isn’t worth dramatizing. You’ll see professional novelists doing this all the time.

Note of caution: If your recap is long and detailed, then you shouldn’t have jumped so far ahead in story time. You should have just maintained the chronology of events and kept moving. A “fall back” recap that runs too long isn’t a recap anymore; it’s a flashback, which isn’t a device you want to use at or near the opening of a new chapter or scene.

Paul Thayer

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The subjunctive mood of verbs

            Yes, verbs are moody little buggers, and one of their weirder moods is called the subjunctive. This form of the verb, which expresses an improbable condition, one contrary to fact, or a wish, command, or desire, is a booby trap for many writers. Its use in both spoken and written English is nearly extinct, but it survives in certain traditional phrases such as:

If I were you. . . . Wish you were here. . . . If I were a rich man. . . . Come what may. . . . Far be it from me. . . .

The condition contrary to fact is the construction that is the biggest bugaboo in the use of the subjunctive. Example:

If such a procedure as this were not used, many patients would not survive.

            This example is correctly expressed. But many clauses introduced by if do not express a condition contrary to fact but merely a condition or contingency. In such cases, the subjunctive mood is incorrect. Clauses introduced by as if or as though, however, usually—repeat, usually—express an unreal condition (a condition contrary to fact). Therefore, you must use the subjunctive mood of the verb with them in most cases. Example:

She looked at me as if I were Vlad the Impaler.

            Now look at this sentence:

If she were not on the scene, his chances would improve.

            Is the subjunctive mood of the verb (were) correct in this case? Is the sentence expressing a condition contrary to fact or simply a contingency? It’s talking about a contingency—an event that may or may not happen. She may or may not be on the scene. So using the subjunctive mood is incorrect. The verb,  therefore, should be was.

            Now you can amaze your friends by explaining when to use was and when to use were.

Paul Thayer
Your book editor

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Grand openings

Chapter One is extremely important. Do I really need to tell you this? In both commercial and literary novels, this is where you have to hook readers and reel them into your story. It should include a motivating incident (a.k.a. the catalytic event); the problem or at least a hint of the problem that the main character has to deal with; the main character’s response; and the conflict (internal or external) that the problem creates for the main character.

When you consider your main character’s response, you should ask yourself, “What is this person’s goal(s)? What does he or she want? Everybody wants something. I want to be paid for writing this blog, but I’m not holding my breath. The goal can be explicit or implicit, the latter being an intimation, a glimmer, or a hint that readers with an I.Q. higher than room temperature will sense.

Why is at least an inkling of the protagonist’s goal so important? Because without a goal the protagonist will take no action and experience no conflict as he/she strives to reach the goal. And without conflict your story will be snore fest.

In short:

Goal   Conflict    Struggle    Drama    Emotions    Readability

Before you introduce the components of scene-setting, you should have an attention-getting first line in order to pull readers into your story. This is one of my favorites from John D. MacDonald’s Darker than Amber:

“We were about to give up and call it a night when somebody threw the girl off the bridge.”
How could you not be sucked into a story that begins with that line?

From a much newer novel, Head Games by Craig McDonald, the first line is:

“We were sitting in a backroom of a cantina on the outskirts of Ciudad Juarez, three drinks in, when Bill Wade reached into the dusty duffle bag he had tucked under the table and plunked down the Mexican general’s head.”

The severed head of a dead Mexican general? That gets your attention. Notice how much scene-setting info the author includes in this first line. He tells us that there are at least two characters in this scene, probably male, where the scene takes place, and what happens. The sentence does double duty—grabbing the reader’s attention and dropping him into the fictional scene.

You can find many notable first lines by googling that subject. Here’s one good site:

I have read far too many uninspiring openings written by inexperienced novelists. Often they begin with backstory. They set up the story by downloading a ton of info to readers instead of getting right into the action of the story. In other cases the writer makes a minimal effort to get the story moving by beginning with a dull bit of commonplace action, soon followed by backstory, something like this:

“When Julia woke up, her bedroom was still dark. She shuffled to the bathroom and looked at her tired face in the mirror.”

Then the writer has to tell us why she’s tired, what color her hair and eyes are, how old she is, where she was born, where she went to college, where she lives now, where she works, what guy she has just broken up with, why she’s anorexic, why her mother hates her (or vice versa), her favorite color, the name of her best friend, and how she and her BFF bonded at age six after that day in the bathroom. Etcetera. I’m exaggerating so you get the idea.

This doth not a compelling opening make. Beginning a story with the main character waking up in the morning is one of the worst ways to start a novel. It’s beyond cliché.

Writing a reader-grabbing first line, first graf, and first chapter takes a lot of thought and experimentation. I urge you to read the beginning of a truckload of novels, analyze them, and determine what works and what doesn’t. Before long you will get the hang of it.

Tip: If reading the first page induces a coma, that’s not the way you should write.

Paul Thayer

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Use a singular noun with a plural possessive

            To avoid ambiguity you should usually use a singular noun with a plural possessive when only one of the things possessed could belong to an individual.


Four pilots crashed to their death (not deaths).
Mr. Smith knew most of them by their first name (not names).

See the plural possessive their in both sentences? That should clue you in.

Another example:

“Let’s go put something in our stomachs.”

People have only one stomach (although some look as if they have at least two), so you must use the singular word stomach. See the plural possessive our?

Paul Thayer

Monday, November 24, 2014

Hooking up: The comma splice

 Recognizing comma-splice errors in your writing is important. What’s a comma splice? This is linking two sentences (two independent clauses) with a comma.


The current was swift, he could not swim to shore.

I like you, you’re nice.

Martha was a lonely woman, she didn’t have any friends.

What we have in these constructions is two separate independent (main) clauses—clauses that contain a subject and a verb—that express two separate thoughts. Example:

Martha was a lonely woman. She didn’t have any friends.

When you have two independent clauses in a sentence, you must write them in one of the following ways:

>   Separate them with a period so they’re treated as two complete sentences.

>   Connect them with a semicolon if the two thoughts are closely related (I like you; you’re nice.)

Connect them with a conjunction, which should have a comma in front of it (The current was swift, and he could not swim to shore.)

This is such a basic rule of writing that I cringe when I see a comma-spliced sentence. Where was this writer, I wonder, when his 7th-grade English teacher taught this lesson? In the john, perhaps, sneaking a smoke. To be honest, this error also makes me prejudiced against the writer because it raises a big red flag. If the writer doesn’t know about such a simple rule, how many other grammatical sins am I going to find in this manuscript? This does not make an editor look forward to reading the rest of the book. We would rather clean the toilet.

Paul Thayer

Monday, November 17, 2014


No, expletive does not refer to the words deleted from the Nixon tapes. It has another meaning in the context of writing. Expletives are words used as structural fillers that have no reference and add no meaning to the sentence. That’s why I think of them as junk words. The most common expletives are there + verb and it + verb (there are, it was, for example). Other expletives are it took and it seemed.


There is an old expression that says, “Know your enemy.”

There are more than a few males in this culture who believe that “she’s out there somewhere.”

Yeah, right.

Expletives overload text with too many state-of-being verbs, which makes the writing weak. Using expletives also leads to problems with subject-verb agreement and pronoun-antecedent agreement. More bad news: Using it with an indefinite reference is not acceptable in formal English (It says right here in The New York Times that . . .). Furthermore, using the expletive it and the pronoun it in the same sentence can be confusing. Readers have to pause for a moment to figure out what each it is referring to. Especially those whose native language is Swahili.

Constructions with expletives often take the form of There is . . . that, There are . . . who, and It was . . . who/that. They make a sentence wordy. Example:

It was the oldest boy who strangled the Geico gecko.

I’d sure like to do that. With malice aforethought and a perverted sense of glee.

Expletives are usually easy to eliminate. Look again at the example sentences written above. The expletive at the beginning of a sentence (or an independent clause) typically buries the noun/subject, which should be more prominently displayed up front. So you could change these sentences to read:

An old expression says, “Know your enemy.”

Many males in this culture believe that “she’s out there somewhere.”

See what I mean? Eliminating expletives makes sentences shorter, more direct, and more easily understood. Using an occasional expletive won’t trigger a midnight visit from the Grammar Gestapo, but you shouldn’t overuse them. If you have to turn a sentence into a pretzel in order to euthanize an expletive, fuggedaboutit.

Paul Thayer

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The worst ways to start a novel

The freshman novels I critique or line edit often have a weak beginning. In many of those cases the writer starts with an info dump of backstory and biographical material instead of turning the ignition switch and getting the story under way. This is no way to put out a welcome mat for readers. You want to catch their attention right away and pull them into your story so they can enter the fictional dream.

No one reads more rookie novel beginnings than literary agents. They’re the ones on the front lines, sifting through inboxes and slush piles. And they’re the ones who can tell us which Chapter One approaches are overused and cliché, as well as which techniques just plain don’t work.

Below is some feedback from some experienced literary agents about what they hate to see in the first pages of a novel:

False beginnings
“I don’t like it when the main character dies at the end of Chapter One. Why did I just spend all this time with this character? I feel deceived.” — Cricket Freeman, The August Agency.

“I dislike opening scenes that you think are real, but then the protagonist wakes up. It makes me feel cheated.” — Laurie McLean, Foreward Literary

In science fiction
“A sci-fi novel that spends the first two pages describing the strange landscape.” — Chip MacGregor, MacGregor Literary

“I’m not a fan of prologues, preferring to find myself in the midst of a moving plot on page one rather than being kept outside of it, or eased into it.” — Michelle Andelman, Regal Literary

“Most agents hate prologues. Just make the first chapter relevant and well written.” — Andrea Brown Literary Agency

“Prologues are usually a lazy way to give back-story chunks to the reader and can be handled with more finesse throughout the story. Damn the prologue, full speed ahead!” — Laurie McLean, Foreward Literary

Exposition and description
“Perhaps my biggest pet peeve with an opening chapter is when an author features too much exposition—when they go beyond what is necessary for simply setting the scene. I want to feel as if I’m in the hands of a master storyteller. Starting a story with long, flowery, overly descriptive sentences makes the writer seem amateurish and the story contrived. Of course an equally jarring beginning can be nearly as off-putting, and I hesitate to read on if I’m feeling disoriented by the fifth page. I enjoy when writers can find a good balance between exposition and mystery. Too much accounting always ruins the mystery of a novel. The unknown is what propels us to read further.” — Peter Miller, PMA Literary and Film Management

“The [adjective] [adjective] sun rose in the [adjective] [adjective] sky, shedding its [adjective] light across the [adjective] [adjective] [adjective] land.” — Chip MacGregor, MacGregor Literary

“I dislike endless ‘laundry list’ character descriptions. For example: ‘She had eyes the color of a summer sky and long blonde hair that fell in ringlets past her shoulders. Her petite nose was the perfect size for her heart-shaped face. Her azure dress — with the empire waist and long, tight sleeves — sported tiny pearl buttons down the bodice. Ivory lace peeked out of the hem in front, blah, blah.’ Who cares! Work it into the story.” — Laurie McLean, Foreward Literary

Starting too slowly
“Characters that are moving around doing little things, but essentially nothing. Washing dishes and thinking, staring out the window and thinking, tying shoes and thinking.” — Don Lazar, Writers House

“I don’t really like ‘first day of school’ beginnings, ‘from the beginning of time,’ or ‘once upon a time.’ Specifically, I dislike a Chapter One in which nothing happens.” — Jessica Regel, Foundry Literary + Media

In crime fiction
“Someone squinting into the sunlight with a hangover. Good grief — been done a million times.” — Chip MacGregor, MacGregor Literary

In fantasy
“Cliché openings in fantasy can include an opening scene set in a battle. My peeve is that I don’t know any of the characters yet, so why should I care about this battle) or with a pastoral scene where the protagonist is gathering herbs (I didn’t realize how common this is).” — Kristin Nelson, Nelson Literary

“I know this may sound obvious, but too much ‘telling’ vs. ‘showing’ in the first chapter is a definite warning sign for me. The first chapter should present a compelling scene, not a road map for the rest of the book. The goal is to make the reader curious about your characters, fill their heads with questions that must be answered, not fill them in on exactly where, when, who, and how.” — Emily Sylvan Kim, Prospect Agency

“I hate reading purple prose – describing something so beautifully that has nothing to do with the actual story.” — Cherry Weiner, Cherry Weiner Literary

“A cheesy hook drives me nuts. They say ‘Open with a hook!’ to grab the reader. That’s true, but there’s a fine line between an intriguing hook and one that’s just silly. An example of a silly hook would be opening with a line of overtly sexual dialogue.” — Daniel Lazar, Writers House

“I don’t like an opening line that’s ‘My name is…,’ introducing the narrator to the reader so blatantly. There are far better ways in Chapter One to establish an instant connection between narrator and reader.” — Michelle Andelman, Regal Literary

“Sometimes a reasonably good writer will create an interesting character and describe him in a compelling way, but then he’ll turn out to be some unimportant bit player.” — Ellen Pepus, Signature Literary Agency

In romance
“In romance, I can’t stand this scenario: A woman is awakened to find a strange man in her bedroom — and then automatically finds him attractive. I’m sorry, but if I awoke to a strange man in my bedroom, I’d be reaching for a weapon — not admiring the view.” — Kristin Nelson, Nelson Literary Agency

In a Christian novel
“A rape scene in a Christian novel in the first chapter.” — Chip MacGregor, MacGregor Literary

Characters and backstory
“I don’t like descriptions of the characters where writers make them too perfect. Heroines (and heroes) who are described physically as being virtually unflawed come across as unrelatable and boring. No ‘flowing, wind-swept golden locks;’ no ‘eyes as blue as the sky;’ no ‘willowy, perfect figures.’” — Laura Bradford, Bradford Literary Agency

“Many writers express the character’s backstory before they get to the plot. Good writers will go back and cut that stuff out and get right to the plot. The character’s backstory stays with them — it’s in their DNA.” — Adam Chromy, Movable Type Management

“I’m turned off when a writer feels the need to fill in all the backstory before starting the story—a story that opens on the protagonist’s mental reflection of their situation is a red flag.” — Stephany Evans, FinePrint Literary Management

“One of the biggest problems is the ‘information dump’ in the first few pages, where the author is trying to tell us everything we supposedly need to know to understand the story. Getting to know characters in a story is like getting to know people in real life. You find out their personality and details of their life over time.” — Rachelle Gardner, Books & Such Literary

In addition, most agents dislike opening Chapter One with dialogue. Les Edgerton, the author of Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One says, “This kind of opening was popular at the turn of the last century; it looks musty now. The problem with beginning a story with dialogue is that the reader knows absolutely nothing about the first character to appear in a story. For that matter, any of the characters. That means that when she encounters a line or lines of dialogue, she doesn’t have a clue who the speaker is, who she is speaking to, and in what context. That requires that she read on a bit further to make sense of the dialogue. Then, at least briefly, she has backtrack in her mind to put it all into context. That represents, at the least, a speed bump, and at worst, a complete stall.

“You don’t want that! Your goal should be to write narratives with enough skill that the reader never has to pause to figure out what’s going on. That interrupts the fictive dream the reader has willingly entered. Once the read is stalled, however momentarily, it becomes easy to put the book down—many times, never to return. You want to avoid such stalls at all costs.

“There are, of course, certain notable exceptions. A line such as, “‘I’d like to make love to Nancy,’ Tom said to his pal Joey, ‘but I’d have to look at her face to do it, and I don’t think I can do that.’” A dialogue opening like that may sometimes work. The thing is, if I began with a snatch of dialogue, I’d make certain that the meaning and context of the lines spoken were clear from the git-go.

“Also, remember that a character’s thoughts are a form of dialogue—they’re an interior monologue—just another reason not to open with the character ruminating.

“Most times, if not always, look for a better way to begin your story than with dialogue.”

Essentially, all these professionals are saying a novelist should not erect a barricade for readers on page one. Your story must hit the ground running.

Paul Thayer

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Which hunting

The problems many writers have with the words that and which make copy editors inveterate which hunters. Remember that a nonrestrictive clause is not essential for the reader to understand the full meaning of the word or words that it modifies. It simply adds more information, describing but not limiting (“restricting”) what it modifies. On the other hand, a restrictive clause contains information that is essential for the reader to understand the full meaning of the word or words that it modifies. It limits (“restricts”) what it modifies. The relative pronoun that should be used to begin restrictive clauses, and which should be used to begin a nonrestrictive clause. Examples:

He showed me the book that arrived in the mail today. [The meaning is restricted to just one book—the one that arrived in the mail today.]


He showed me the new Stephen King novel, which is the one I told you about yesterday. [The clause just adds more information to the sentence.]

Paul Thayer

Monday, October 27, 2014

Scene Conclusions

 Each scene should have a strong opening and a strong conclusion. A scene should end neatly and completely, rather than just dropping off. Make sure that you’ve given each scene wrap-up a sense of completeness and closure, so that readers don’t feel that they need to hear or see something more. Often just adding a sentence or two will do the trick. An ending written from the perspective of the viewpoint character (VPC) is the best thing to do. If you can include a cliffhanger, an emotional punch line (in dialogue or narration), an important question, a hint of interesting action to come, or some especially lyrical writing, so much the better.

Here’s how my client Brent Ghelfi ended one scene in his published novel The Venona Cable:

Rykov started back down the hall, motioning for his men to bring me along.
     “You’ll leave Lefortovo in only one of two ways,” he said, not looking back. “Transferred to another prison. Or dead.”

The lines that close the curtain on a scene don’t have to be complicated or fancy. Here’s another example, this one from Brent Ghelfi’s published novel Volk’s Game:

      I push him into the street and toward his flat. He wobbles off. He’s ruined for the night, and maybe for good. I set off in the other direction. Time to see Gromov now, while the anger is still fresh.

See what I mean?

Monday, October 13, 2014

Going begging

You will see the expression begs the question used incorrectly in many different contexts, from student compositions to respected national magazines and newspapers to TV news programs.

The concept of “begging the question” is a fallacy that comes from the discipline of logic and the art of formal argument, where it’s known as petitio principii. In a debate, if someone begs the question, he is assuming in the premise some truth that he seeks to establish in the conclusion. For example, in Alice in Wonderland, during Alice’s wacky conversation with the Cheshire Cat, the cat uses certain assumptions (including his own madness) to conclude that everyone in Wonderland is mad. He says, “Well, I’m certainly crazy; therefore, everyone here is crazy.” This is using flawed logic.

You will see the phrase begs/begging the question used incorrectly in statements like this one:

Giving the schools billions more dollars begs the question of whether this will improve students’ grades.

Instead of writing “begs the question” in sentences like this one, write “raises the question” or “prompts the question” or “forces one to ask.”