Sunday, December 13, 2015

Who and Whom

Deposit this statement into your memory bank:

Who is the subject, and whom is the object in a sentence.

The subject of a sentence is a noun or a noun substitute about which something is asserted or asked in the predicate (the predicate is the part of a sentence comprising what is said about the subject).

The object of a sentence is a noun or a noun substitute governed by a transitive verb, a nonfinite verb, or a preposition. A direct object is any noun or a noun substitute that answers the question What? or Whom? after a transitive verb. A direct object frequently receives or is in some way affected by the action of the verb. Example:

John hit the ball.  (ball is the direct object of the verb hit)

Subject: Who hit the ball? John hit the ball.

Object: John hit the ball to Linda. Linda is the object of the verb hit.

I should define one more term: case. Case is the form of a noun or pronoun in a specific context that shows whether it functions as a subject, an object, or a possessive. We use the terms subjective case for the subject of a sentence and objective case for the object of  a sentence. 

The pronouns who and whoever are in the subjective case, meaning that they are used as the subject of a sentence. The pronouns whom and whomever are in the objective case, meaning that they are used as the object of the subject in a sentence. See direct object above.

Zzzzzzzzz . . . Right?

Wake up. There’s more.

To find the correct pronoun case in a sentence, you must determine whether the pronoun functions as a subject or an object. To do that, use these tests:

Test for who or whom in the subjective case

Example:  I wondered (who, whom) would vote.
Test:  Substitute he and him (or she and her):  “He would vote” or “Him would vote.”
Answer:  He. Therefore, because he is subjective, who, which is also subjective, is correct:  “I wondered who would vote.”

Test for who or whom in the objective case

Example:  Volunteers go to senior citizen centers hoping to enroll people (who, whom) others have ignored.
Test:  Try using they and them at the end of the sentence: “Others have ignored they” or “Others have ignored them.”
Answer: Them. Therefore, because them is objective, whom, which is also objective, is correct: “Volunteers go to senior citizen centers hoping to enroll people whom others have ignored.”

I hope all this makes sense to you so you can apply these rules in your writing.

One final point: Some grammatically correct sentences sound too fussy. If a sentence that says “We had a minister whom everyone seemed to like” sounds that way to you, then recast the sentence:

Everyone seemed to like the minister of our church.

This is fascinating stuff, isn’t it? Now you can amaze your friends by explaining the proper use of who and whom to them. I know they will thank you for that. Surely most of them have lost sleep by wrestling with the who/whom dilemma.

Paul Thayer

To reward you for reading all this gobbledygook, here’s a limerick that might amuse you:

A certain young man never knew
Just when to say whom and when who;
“The question of choosing,” 
He said, “is confusing;
I wonder if which wouldn’t do.”
— Christopher Morley

Sunday, November 15, 2015

To prologue or not to prologue?

Should you write a prologue for your novel? Maybe yes, maybe no. To find the answer, let’s begin by defining the term:


  • a separate introductory section of a literary or musical work: This idea is outlined in the prologue.
  • an event or action that leads to another event or situation: Civil unrest in a few isolated villages became the prologue to widespread rebellion.

Sometimes I pick up a book and read the prologue and wonder why the author thought it was needed. I ask myself, Does it do anything that can’t be done in the first chapter? If the prologue is all back story, shouldn’t that material be braided into the story as the plot and characters develop? Is the prologue intended only to hook the reader? If so, why wasn’t that done on page one of Chapter One, where the reader-baiting and -hooking should take place?

You may think I’m death on prologues, but I’m not. A prologue can be effective if it’s written well, with a clear view of its purpose, and if it includes significant facts that contribute to the reader’s understanding of what kind of novel this is and where the plot is heading. Furthermore, contrary to what some believe, I think a prologue can be used to pull readers into the story, to create a sense of place and time, to foreshadow events to follow, and to provide the voice and viewpoint of an important character.

Even so, I often find myself sighing with impatience when confronted with a prologue. Just get to the damn story already! I think. Show me a scene. I want to see someone doing something worth writing about. I want to hear people speak. I want setting. I want conflict. I want to know what kicks this story in the ass to get it moving.

The prologues of far too many self-published novels, especially, contain none of these things. They tell; they don’t show. The only thing they do well is extinguish any interest an intelligent reader has summoned in order to start reading the book in the first place.

That’s why I often urge new writers to deep-six their prologue. I’m pretty sure they haven’t given much thought to the craft of writing one, to its purposes and pitfalls. They just jump into the task of prologue-ing and fire away only because it seems like a good idea at the time and is an easy way to get started. All too often this results in a long-winded info dump of back story and character introduction written from the viewpoint of an omniscient narrator, that invisible godlike being in the sky who sees all and knows all, even when we’re in the shower (Yikes!). I don’t know about you, but I find no pleasure in hanging out with a bossy, faceless narrator who’s bent on force-feeding me great globs of information that are too much to digest in one sitting before the story gets under way.

Note: Reading page after page of back story and background info about people you don’t know is not entertaining. It’s more like a chore, like trying to memorize a page of a phone book or, even worse, trying to read Ulysses.

I often tell my writers this: Readers won’t be very interested in learning about a character’s background until they’re interested in his or her foreground.

How to drive a literary agent to drink

Some people say that all literary agents hate prologues. Not true. But many of them do. Here’s what some of them say:

“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

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

“Prologues often show that the writer doesn’t know where to start the story.” — Carly Watters, P.S. Literary Agency

“Almost all the agents I know completely skip the prologue and start with chapter one when reading sample pages.” — Kristen Nelson, Nelson Literary Agency

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

I'd say 99% of the submissions I receive with a prologue don't need it. Most of the time they read (to me) like: Look at me! I can write an AMAZING scene! Oh, but sorry, you have to read 100 more pages to get to the story. — Natalie M. Lakosil, the Bradford Literary Agency.

In best-selling author Kristen Lamb’s blog (, she says that “there are a lot more reasons to NOT use a prologue than there are to employ one.” She calls prologues a big “fish head” that, in many cases, should be “cut off and thrown away.” But she also acknowledges that “prologues, when done properly, can be excellent literary devices. Yet, with a clear reader propensity to skip them, then that might at least make us pause before we decide our novel must have one.”

She identifies “The 7 Deadly Sins of Prologues,” as follows:

• The prologue is really just a vehicle for a massive information dump.

•  The prologue really has nothing to do with the main story.

• The prologue’s sole purpose is to “hook” the reader.

• The prologue is overly long.

• The prologue is written in a totally different style and voice that is never tied back into the main story.

• The prologue is condensed world-building (especially in science fiction).

• The prologue is there solely to “set the mood.”

As you can see, she’s one pro who thinks a prologue is no place for reader-hooking and mood-setting, while others think this is okay.

So when can you use a prologue? Ms. Lamb says:

• Prologues can be used to resolve a time gap with information critical to the story.

• Prologues can be used if there is a critical element in the back story relevant to the plot.

To all this I’d like to emphasize these points:

1. A prologue is not a side or back story. The best ones, IMHO, are a pivotal event that leads up to Chapter One.

2. Literary agents usually read only the first three to five pages, so if you have filled those pages with prologue material, many agents will reject (or set fire to) your manuscript without going any farther.

3. Readers tend to skip a prologue.

I have made my own admittedly unscientific survey of e-novels self-published on Amazon. After reading many samples from these books, I saw how popular prologues are with this legion of writers. I’d say that about 80 percent of these novels start with a prologue.

We probably shouldn’t rush to a judgment based on this observation, but I think it indicates something for us to ponder. Most of these prologues break one or more of the rules already mentioned. Some of the ones I’ve read should be labeled “Chapter One.” Almost all the others are info dumps of back story and biography used to set up the main story. Too many of them were so long that I couldn’t bear to read the whole thing. Will other readers feel the same way? I’m going with a yes.

So before you write a prologue, consider what I and others have said here. I also urge you to go to a library or a bookstore and analyze prologues in many published novels and see what works and what doesn’t and why. Take notes. Then reread the prologue you’ve written and decide whether to keep it or cut it. 

Like a fish’s head.

Paul Thayer
Your Book Editor

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Verbs with auxiliaries

Consider this sentence: She was leaning to the left, favoring her right leg, which was hurting now.

Here we have a verb, leaning, preceded by an auxiliary verb, was. Verbs with auxiliaries are never as sharply focused as verbs without them, because the former indicate indefinite time, whereas the latter suggest a given instant. The novelist’s goal is to let the story unfold as it happens, to keep the reader in the moment—the “ongoing present.” One thing that will help you do that is to use verbs that tell readers what’s happening right now.

The example sentence, therefore, would be more focused if you dropped the was and said “She leaned. . . .” 

Paul Thayer
Your book editor

Sunday, August 2, 2015

The perils of "-ing disease"

Many writers often construct sentences like these:
Putting down his red pen and swiveling his chair around before settling back into his seat, Max said, “Blah blah blah.”

Grabbing my arm, he dragged me into the bedroom, pinning me to the wall with his body.

Such sentences are the result of the writer’s attempt to add variety in sentence structure. That’s an admirable goal, but writing sentences with introductory verbal phrases results in shifts in temporal focus or to plain illogic by implying that more than one action occurred at the same time. In the examples above, Max did not put down his pen, swivel his chair around and settle back into his seat and say, “Blah blah blah” all at the same time. Likewise, the man didn’t grab somebody’s arm, drag that person into the bedroom and pin that person to the wall with his body. These actions were sequential events.

Another example:

Firing the hired man and burning down his shack, John drove into town.

Same error. The sentence implies that the action of firing the hired man and burning down his shack and the action of driving into town are simultaneous events. Ditto with this sentence:

Running up the stairs, he opened the bathroom door.

No one can open an upstairs door as they run upstairs, unless their arms are forty feet long.    
Notice that these sentences use an introductory participial (verbal) phrase that begins with a gerund, a verb formed by adding –ing. Beginning many sentences with a gerund used in this way is a symptom of what I call “-ing disease.”

Sentences that defy logic and time restrictions are one of the most common narrative grammatical mistakes. Don’t catch -ing disease.

Paul Thayer
My website

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Beware the run-on sentence

Any native English speaker who writes a run-on sentence is either (1) someone who was raised by wolves, (2) a tadpole in disguise, (3) a Scientologist, (4) a communist, or (5) an exiled member of an alien species. So beware. If you are any of these things, you don’t want your family to know about it.

A run-on sentence, also known as a fused sentence or a run-together sentence, contains two or more independent clauses not connected by the correct punctuation or conjunction. (An independent clause has a subject and a verb, expresses a complete thought, and can stand alone.)

Example of a run-on sentence:

Kelly likes to cook she makes something different every day.

This sentence contains two independent clauses. It expresses two ideas:

1. Kelly likes to cook
2. she makes something different every day

Writers can fix a run-on sentence in three ways:

Put a period between the two independent clauses: Kelly likes to cook. She makes something different every day.

Put a semicolon between the two independent clauses: Kelly likes to cook; she makes something different every day.

Put a conjunction between the two independent clauses: Kelly likes to cook, and she makes something different every day.

Any editor who finds more than ten run-on sentences in a manuscript will either self-implode or quit the profession and become an insurance agent.

Paul Thayer
My website

Monday, July 20, 2015

Using the semicolon

When you place a semicolon in a sentence, remember that you must have an independent clause both before and after the semicolon and that the ideas expressed in both main clauses should be closely related. Example:

I like you; you’re nice.

Also remember that the semicolon is always used before a conjunctive adverb that introduces a second independent clause. Example:

Her arguments sounded convincing; therefore, the majority voted for her.

The word therefore is a conjunctive adverb. Note that a comma always follows the conjunctive adverb.

Conjunctive adverbs include accordingly, also, anyhow, as a result, besides, consequently, furthermore, henceforth, however, indeed, instead, likewise, meanwhile, moreover, nevertheless, otherwise, then, thus, and therefore.

Most editors agree that the use of semicolons should be kept to a minimum in fiction. I wouldn’t use them at all in dialogue. The University of Chicago Manual of Style, the bible of the publishing industry, says, “Semicolons tend to be frowned upon in fiction. An editor who doesn’t allow them at all is overly rigid, however, since they are sometimes useful and even necessary.”

Paul Thayer
My website

Sunday, July 12, 2015

He spewed?

One of my clients asked me this question:

Q. Using the word said after a line of dialogue all the time seems boring. Why can’t I use more descriptive verbs?

A. Using attribution verbs like gasped, laughed, spat, croaked, rasped, barked, and even (oh God please no) ejaculated and many others of their ilk is unnecessary and redolent of the work of amateurs and writers of pulp fiction. Speakers don’t gasp or spit or laugh a line, they say it.

Stephen King agrees, calling the use of these words “shooting the attribution verb full of steroids” (page 126 in On Writing). He admits to committing that sin in the past, but declares now that “the best form of dialogue attribution is said.” Dean Koontz declares that he never uses any attribution but said, although he may have done so in the early days, as King did. Other writers and teachers, including Elmore Leonard, have also sung the praises of the simple word said.

One of Leonard’s ten rules of writing is “Never use a verb other than said to carry dialogue.” He says: “The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated” and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.”

You can use some attribution verbs other than said as long as they aren’t of the steroid-injected kind. For instance, you can use words such as shouted, cried, called, whispered, murmured, mumbled, and a few others occasionally. If writers go beyond that by using goofy steroid words or verbs followed by adverbs, they’re intruding in the story by explaining too much. As King says (page 128, On Writing) if your context is constructed correctly, “when you use he said, the reader will know how he said it—fast or slowly, happily or sadly.” So don’t write something like this: “Go to hell!,” he said angrily. Don’t add the adverb angrily. Anyone who says that is obviously pissed off.

Paul Thayer
My website

Sunday, July 5, 2015

“Began to” and “started to”

I find sentences like the following one in most novels written by novice writers.

She started to run across the street.

Writers should avoid saying that someone “began” or “started” to do something or that something began or started to happen. People either do something or they don’t, and an event either occurs or it doesn’t. In the example sentence you should write, “She ran across the street.”

You wouldn’t say, “The bomb started to explode,” would you? I certainly hope not. You’d say, “The bomb exploded.”

Paul Thayer
My website

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Pronoun agreement

A pronoun must agree in number with its antecedent. They must both be either singular or plural. Look at this sentence:

This happens to everyone whether they choose to believe it or not.

Here the pronoun they must agree with its antecedent, everyone. But they is plural, and everyone is singular (everyone means “every single one”). Uh-oh! What to do?

Unfortunately (but unavoidably), this pronoun agreement problem broaches the “singular they” debate—the name generally given to the use of they, them, their, or theirs to refer to a singular pronoun, as in “Everyone was blowing their nose.”

The singular they has been used in English since Chaucer’s time, but most grammarians have traditionally prescribed the use of the masculine pronoun: “Everyone was blowing his nose.” In recent years, however, the singular they has gained popularity because of the move toward gender-neutral language. Nevertheless, many learned language mavens still maintain that terms such as everyone and each student should be treated as grammatically singular. Even the noted English lexicographer Henry Watson Fowler, writing in the 1920s, felt that the singular they sounded “old-fashioned” and wittily demonstrated how the singular they never seems to agree perfectly:

“Everyone was blowing their nose”?
“Everyone was blowing their noses”?
“Everyone were blowing their noses”?

Proposals for gender-neutral pronouns have been made since the 1850s, but the subsequent discussions tend to go round and round and never reach a consensus. New pronouns may be invented in the future, but for now we’re all forced to deal with this English idiosyncrasy.

In the past, most of us were taught to solve this problem by replacing the “singular they” with the “generic he,” like this:

For reasons they couldn’t explain, each of them found his good time turning bad.

But these days that’s considered sexist, so we’re advised to replace he and his, etc., with he and she, his and her, etc. That solution, though, produces clumsy sentences such as

An employee who thinks that he or she can’t be replaced rarely stops to ask himself or herself if the boss holds the same opinion of him or her.

Horrors! That won’t do.

The best solution is to write around the problem. For instance, sometimes a troublesome singular noun can be changed to the plural. Then a sentence that says

Everyone hopes that they will win the lottery.


Many people hope that they will win the lottery.

And sometimes you can ditch the pronoun. Then a sentence that says

Each guest should bring their own knife and fork.


Each guest should bring a knife and fork.

. . . and the lottery sentence becomes

Everyone hopes to win the lottery.

Including me. Then I wouldn’t have to deal with this problem.

Paul Thayer
My website

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Verbs with auxiliaries

Consider this sentence: She was leaning to the left, favoring her right leg, which was hurting now. Here we have a verb, leaning, preceded by an auxiliary verb, was. Verbs with auxiliaries are never as sharply focused as verbs without them, because the former indicate indefinite time, whereas the latter suggest a given instant. The novelist’s goal is to let the story unfold as it happens, to keep the reader in the moment—the “ongoing present.” One thing that will help you do that is to use verbs that tell readers what’s happening right now. The example sentence, therefore, would be more focused if you dropped the was and said “She leaned. . . .” 

Paul Thayer
My book editing website

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Indirect or summary dialogue

You don’t want to miss any opportunities to present dialogue. Sometimes, though, you should not present dialogue directly; instead, you should present it indirectly, meaning that it should be summarized, a.k.a., paraphrased. For example, two people meet and say something like this:

“Hi, Bob. How are you doing today?”

“I’m fine, John. How are you?”

“I’m good, thanks. How are your wife and kids?”

“They’re doing great. How about yours?”

Dialogue like this is unnecessary as well as boring. Don’t include everyday chitchat. You must get right to the point for having a conversation—to the real reason why the people are talking. Dialogue has been called “conversation’s greatest hits.” This means you should include only the most meaningful words and ideas, just as you give readers only the most significant physical details in a scene. When you use only meaningful dialogue, it helps to advance the story and develop characterization. You could summarize insignificant dialogue or, better yet, don’t include it at all.

Neither should you use dialogue where one person tells another one information that the reader already knows. That’s when you should summarize that information and say something like this:

He told her how he had discovered Johnson’s body that morning and what he had found in his apartment.

Furthermore, in order to save space—remember, economy is one hallmark of good writing—and to keep things moving, summarize dialogue of secondary importance yet important enough to communicate useful info or create images, or both, that help enlarge the story in some way. Example:

So Virgil never got to go ashore. One of the midshipmen who did, delivering messages to the consulate, said the city was full of beggars and Spanish soldiers; he said people walked in the middle of the street, rode horses holding umbrellas over their head, and the women wore so much white face powder they looked like they were dead. Virgil said he’d like to see them anyway. The midshipman said don’t step in the gutters; some places there was poop in the gutters. He said hey, he bet that’s why everybody walked in the middle of the street.
— Elmore Leonard, Cuba Libre

Summary dialogue like this delivers info and imagery to readers quickly.

As you review your text, consider each section of dialogue carefully, asking yourself, Do these words need to be spoken aloud, or should I rewrite this part as indirect dialogue?

Paul Thayer
My website

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Verbs are moody little buggers

Verbs have three "moods"—indicative, subjunctive, and imperative. The most common is the indicative mood. You are using the indicative mood when you make a simple statement:

I know the window was shut. (indicative mood)

Where the indicative mood tells, the imperative commands, and the subjunctive wishes or speculates:

Shut the window. (imperative mood)

I wish the window were shut. (subjunctive mood)

Mood indicates how the writer thinks about a subject. If you wish something were true or speculate about what might happen (subjunctive mood) or give a command (imperative mood), you let the reader know this by changing the form of the verb or by the omission of certain words.

Consider this embarrassing situation: A husband comes home unexpectedly and sees a man fleeing out his back door. He rushes into the bedroom and accuses his wife of cheating on him, and she responds:

So what if my lover were here? (subjunctive)

By using the subjunctive mood, she is not confessing; she’s inviting her husband to consider a hypothetical question.

But the situation is quite different if she says:

So what if my lover was here?

Now she is indeed confessing and wants to know what her husband intends to do about that fact.

The changing of was to were is the signal for the mood involved—the subjunctive mood. 

Look at the subjunctive in another sentence:

The captain ordered that the sails be hoisted and the anchor be weighed.

You might expect the imperative since the captain is giving an order, but—since the desired condition of the sails and anchor are not yet fact—you use the subjunctive.

Once the order has been carried out, you could use the indicative mood to express the situation:

The captain saw that the sails were hoisted and the anchor was weighed.

Compare that to the imperative mood, used to give a command or to direct someone in the performance of a task. Note that the imperative mood is created by removing the implied subject, which in English is always you.

"(You) Hoist the sails! (You) Weigh anchor!" yelled the captain.

Now we are hearing the captain give the actual order—in contrast to the first sentence, where we are merely reporting what the order was. This distinction will become quite important when you start writing dialogue and quotes. It differentiates between the summarizing or paraphrasing of speech and the speech itself.

Paul Thayer
Your Book Editor

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Finding the right word

Mark Twain said, “use the right word, not its second cousin.” He also said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

I couldn’t agree more. When I line edit a manuscript, I typically change many words to ones I think are better ones. The author can accept or reject these changes. I hope they will accept them or find one that’s even better—the quintessentially right word. After I’ve made quite a few of these changes, I suspect that the writer used the first word that came to mind. Nothing wrong with doing that in a first draft if the words flowed from a writer’s figurative pen in a rush of creativity. But the writer must, must, must slowly and carefully review and revise that first draft. One thing to look for is words that could be stronger and more precise in their meaning. Most words have a number of synonyms. Use a thesaurus and consider each of those synonyms to see which one most closely communicates what you want to say.

Tip: When you review your writing, look for only one thing at a time, not for everything that could be improved. You could look for weak and/or imprecise words in your first review.

Tip #2: Many of the words I change are anemic action verbs. For instance, instead of writing "Susan walked across the room," you could say, "Susan flounced across the room." Remember the old adage "Show, don't tell"? Weak verbs such as walked only tell what Susan did. A word like flounced shows what she did.

Read more here.

Paul Thayer
Your book editor

Sunday, April 26, 2015

He got mojo filter

Look at this sentence:

She noticed John waving furiously to get her attention.

As the novelist and teacher John Gardner tells us, new writers often fail “to run straight at the image.” In other words, they filter imagery needlessly through some observing consciousness. That’s what is happening in this sentence.

Gardner says:

Generally speaking, vividness urges that almost every occurrence of such phrases as ‘she noticed’ and ‘he saw’ be suppressed in favor of direct presentation of the thing seen.

To avoid filtering the image (what she saw—the act of John’s waving) in the example sentence, change it to read:

John waved furiously to get her attention.

In context, the reader knows that the point-of-view (POV ) character (the woman) sees John waving. You don’t have to tell the reader that she is seeing him waving at her.

Another example:

He saw two dogs fighting over a bone.

Change this to:

Two dogs fought over a bone.

In other words, let your POV character filter emotions and information for the reader, but present the sensory details directly. Search for and rewrite sentences in your text that include phrases such as she noticed, he saw, she could see, she could hear, etc.

Paul Thayer
Your book editor

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Using a comma with an adverbial clause

A comma is required before or after an adverbial clause, depending on whether it begins or ends a sentence, and if it functions as a nonrestrictive clause. 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. (For more info about restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses, see my earlier post “Which hunting.”)

Look at this example:

When Charley woke up a horrible stench filled the room.

I have underlined the adverbial clause. It’s nonrestrictive in this sentence, so you should place a comma after the word up. Then readers won’t misread the sentence and think that Charley woke up a horrible stench.

For the same reason you should put a comma after the adverbial clause in this cannibalistic sentence:

When we had finished eating Robert and I left the room.

Poor Robert!

Paul Thayer
My book editing website

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?

In case you don’t know already, a simile is “a figure of speech involving the comparison of one thing with another thing of a different kind, used to make a description more emphatic or vivid,” usually introduced by the words as or like. A metaphor is “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable: “I had fallen through a trapdoor of depression,” said Mark.              

Figurative language adds depth and resonance to writing. Be careful when you think about using them, however, because you can have too much of a good thing. I caution writers against peppering their prose with similes and metaphors. In the strictest sense, you should use a comparison only when 1.) you think the reader won’t quite get the picture without it and 2.) when you aren’t able to provide an approximate description without it. If your comparisons become gratuitous, you’re pushing your luck with readers, who may find them intrusive once you’ve crossed the line.

Tip: Similes and metaphors are best when they are a natural part of a character’s environment. If you’re writing a western, for instance, you shouldn’t say, “He looked like a New York City street peddler.”

Here are some fresh and effective similes:

“Tom felt weighed and measured as neatly as a goose on market day.”

“The crew got as skittery as water on a hot griddle.”

“Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food cake.”
(Raymond Chandler, Farewell, My Lovely, 1940)

“Some dance critic, who worked behind the bar in a honky-tonk, said that when Boomer danced he looked like a monkey on roller skates juggling razor blades in a hurricane.
(Tom Robbins, Skinny Legs and All, 1990)

“Rails suspended overhead, from which black chains hung like jungle vines that clattered through their blocks, making a tooth-rattling noise, a noise like the jabbering of a thousand jawbones in a thousand skulls.”
(John Griesemer, Signal and Noise. Hutchinson, 2004)

“Carl reached for the phone, his gut tightening. Even before he heard the voice on the other end, he suspected—no, knew—it would be him. ‘You did real well,’ the voice said, a voice like dry leaves rustling down a sidewalk.”
(J. Michael Straczynski, “We Killed Them in the Ratings.” Blowout in Little Man Flats, ed. by Billie Sue Mosiman and Martin Greenberg. Rutledge Hill, 1998)

“I took a deep breath and started to speak. I can’t remember half of what I said, but I do know that I was at least a million times more inspiring than Lyle Filbender. He sounded like a defective robot in need of a battery change and had to be reprimanded twice for calling the Mission’s clients ‘bums.’“
(Maureen Fergus, Exploits of a Reluctant (but Extremely Goodlooking) Hero. Kids Can Press, 2007)

“For all his roughness and arrogance, the boy was transformed when he was in the presence of girls. He spoke in a voice as soft as the silken filaments that float out of a cocoon.”
(Carol Field, Mangoes and Quince. Bloomsbury, 2001)

“Without warning, Lionel gave one of his tight little sneezes: it sounded like a bullet fired through a silencer.”
(Martin Amis, Lionel Asbo: State of England. Alfred A. Knopf, 2012)

“The street was alive with them, hollow-eyed and faceless astride coal-black horses, their muffled hoofbeats sounding like rapid shots miles away. Only these sounds were right here and I was in the midst of them. Sabers whistled. Once I heard a noise like a cook’s cleaver striking half-boiled meat, a nauseating sound. Then there were real shots, hard and sharp, like derisive coughs, and metal-gray smoke that mingled with the white vapor exhaled by the horses.”
(Loren D. Estleman, Murdock’s Law, 1982)

“Everyone who heard it—even the people who said that Dylan sounded like a dog with his leg trapped in barbed wire—knew Bob Dylan was a phenomenon.”
(Lewis Macadams, Birth Of The Cool. The Free Press, 2001)

“When the train horns sounded and then were quiet, there were pure reverberations up and down the river that sounded like a plucked harp string or a piano note sustained by holding down a pedal.”
(Mark Knudsen, Old Man River and Me: One Man’s Journey Down the Mighty Mississippi. Thomas Nelson, 1999)

“The floorboards creaked in the room where Rain used to be, and the branches of the cherry tree in the front yard near Edgar Allan Poe’s grave swayed in the wind. They scratched against the glass with a soft tap, tap, tap. It sounded like a lizard’s paws. Then it sounded like a serpent’s tongue. Then it sounded like five weak fingers rapping on the windowpane, the same gentle fingers that used to comb and braid Alice’s hair.”
(Lisa Dierbeck, One Pill Makes You Smaller. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003)

“Welshmen like Mr. Davis put great stock in Welsh singing, but to my Irish ears it sounds like men jumping off chairs into a bathtub full of frogs.”
(P.J. O’Rourke, “The Welsh National Combined Mud Wrestling and Spelling Bee Championship.” Age and Guile, Beat Youth, Innocence, and a Bad Haircut. Atlantic Monthly Press, 1995)


Paul Thayer
Your Book Editor

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Scene Breaks

You must indicate a scene break when one scene ends and another one begins. To do this, just leave a blank, one-line, horizontal space on the page by hitting the "Return" key twice. When I line edit a manuscript I indicate places where the writer should insert a scene break with this notation:

---------- 1# ----------

You must insert a scene break whenever:

  • The narrative point of view moves to a different character from the one in the previous scene
  • A significant amount of time passes between one scene and the next
  • A different set of characters enters the story
  • The characters have moved to a different setting from the previous scene 

No rules, dashes, or dingbats of any kind should be placed in the white space of a scene break unless the scene ends at the bottom of a page. When that happens insert three asterisks (*), centered on the page, with five spaces between each one, at the bottom of the page or at the top of the next one to alert readers to the break. 

 Paul Thayer
Your Book Editor

Monday, March 2, 2015

Top 12 fiction writers' mistakes

1. Writing sentences in the passive voice—Watch out for excessive use of the passive voice of verbs. Replace was and were with verbs that show action: Burglars stole a lot of jewelry instead of A lot of jewelry was stolen by burglars.

2. Using the same words over and over—Watch out for pet words. Find good synonyms to bring variety and life to your writing.

3. Using too much punctuation—Avoid being showy or self-consciousness about punctuation. Save the semicolon for formal writing, and don’t use it in dialogue. For guidance, consult a good basic text like The Elements of Style.

4. Using too many contractions—Using many contractions in exposition (narration) signals an informal style that may not suit the target publisher or the audience. When in doubt, check the publisher’s style sheet or ask for advice.

5. Writing “purple prose”—A common affliction of new writers, who often use too many adjectives and too much description: “The rich, red tropical sun rose brilliantly over the sparkling azure blue water, spreading its glorious warmth over the dewy dandelions, sensuous snapdragons, and sleepy morning glories that opened their blue mouths wide to taste the delicious dawn.” Barf!

6. Overusing pairs of adjectives—Another way writers sometimes overdo it. Trim the fat. One good adjective usually works better than two.

7. Using clichés—Writers should avoid clichés like (ahem) the plague. Find an original way to express your thought.

8. Overusing $10 words—Too many unfamiliar, highfalutin words will turn off most readers. You don’t want to sound as if you’re showing off or talking down to the reader. Academic and technical writing, however, allows more such terms.

9. Making all sentences the same length—Varied sentence length is one characteristic of good writing. The right combination of short, medium, and long sentences actually helps hold the attention of the reader and keeps things moving.

10. Adding information that’s off the subject—Is all your text relevant to the story at hand? Do all the people mentioned add something to the story? If not, determine where you have strayed, cut out the junk, and get the narrative back on track.

11. Using too many words (overwriting)—Some writers just go on and on, with no sense of getting to the point, piling on adjectives and adverbs, making vague or irrelevant statements, and using several words when one would do. Eliminate unnecessary words.

12. Being too general—Vague and general statements take the life out of your writing. Be specific. The best writing is packed with details that engage the senses and emotions, allowing your readers to participate in the scene being described. Fiction or nonfiction, the principle is the same: Give your readers details, details, details.

Paul Thayer
Your Book Editor

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Who’s on first?

The pronoun that may have a long history of referring to people as well as things, but using it can sound illiterate in some contexts where you’re obviously referring to humans—a habit that writers have picked up from spoken American English. Further, despite the long use (or misuse) of that in connection with people, current English textbooks maintain that who should be used to refer to people or to animals with names or special talents. That and which, they say, should be used to refer to animals, things, and sometimes to anonymous or collective groups of people.

A few exceptions exist, as usual. Using that instead of who can sometimes get you out of a tough situation, like this one:

“Did she say it was a man or a book that she curled up with last night?”

I could make an inappropriate comment about this sentence, but this time I’m gonna restrain myself.

Paul Thayer

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Soaping up

Providing readers with information they need to know is necessary, of course, and a great way to do that is by using dialogue. You have to make sure, however, to avoid what I call “soap-opera dialogue.” You shouldn’t have characters discussing things they already know just for the benefit of the reader. Chitchat like this is called soap-opera dialogue because it’s used in soaps frequently to help viewers who may have missed a few shows. Example:

Rick: “Jeff got here about ten minutes ago.”
Todd: “Jeff? That sleazy attorney who broke up with Natalie last week after Dr. Lebowitz told him she had a brain tumor?”
Rick: “Yep. He flew in this morning. I guess he figures that big murder trial of his in New Orleans can go on without him.”

In conversations like this you can almost see the characters winking at each other. Never use soap-opera dialogue in your novel.

Paul Thayer

Sunday, January 18, 2015

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. To keep things simple, use the relative pronoun that to begin restrictive clauses and which 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.]

            Also note that you can often delete the word that in many constructions: The books [that] I ordered arrived today.

Paul Thayer

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Possessed

One rule of grammar that is easily overlooked says that writers should not ascribe possession to inanimate things like buildings. Example: the hospital’s wide double doors. This example isn’t nearly as clumsy as one I caught in an unpublished short story once, where the writer used the phrase the chimney’s smoke, but it still breaks the rule that says inanimate objects cannot possess. Some phrases that form all or part of the subject or predicate are acceptable, however:

He spent a week’s salary on computer games.
Day’s end found the expedition at the river.
They discovered her body at the water’s edge.

Also, certain inanimate objects that have been personified may show possession:

The ship’s rudder was damaged when it ran aground.
The students made a model of the airplane’s fuselage.

Editors are generally more tolerant today about applying this rule, so few would cavil at innocuous expressions like the hospital’s wide double doors. Nevertheless, I would not push my luck by writing expressions like the chimney’s smoke and the house’s roof, for instance.

Paul Thayer