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