By Sandra Nachlinger
I’ve been critiquing a few manuscripts recently and have enjoyed reading the opening pages of a variety of stories. It’s amazing and delightful to discover the many clever, original ideas that emerge from the minds of writers. The diversity is always surprising. However, in putting together my comments for each story, I’ve noticed several issues that occur again and again. For example:
Long, Intrusive Narrative:
Depending on the genre and situation, there’s nothing wrong with narrative. Even lengthy descriptions can be acceptable in some stories. However, when a character clings to a cliff over a chasm, he probably won’t be thinking about the Latin name for the plant he’s holding onto or contemplating the back story of the man who pushed him. Many readers will scan those sections of beautifully written description to find out if the character survived or fell to the rocks below.
No one is suggesting that was, were, is, or are be stricken from the English language, but their usage (over and over and over, especially combined with “ing” words) can slow down a story’s action.
Example: When the gunman was running into the room, Ann was standing at the blackboard, writing out the day’s assignments.
Simple past tense: When the gunman ran into the room, Ann stood at the blackboard, writing out the day’s assignments.
With more dramatic verbs: When the gunman charged into the room, Ann froze at the blackboard, her hand poised over the list of assignments.
It’s and Its:
It’s is a contraction, formed by a combination of the words it and is. The apostrophe indicates the missing letter. Example: Give me that pencil. It’s [it is] mine.
Its is a possessive. Example: The house needs a makeover. Its style could be described as early ghetto.
Wandering Body Parts:
In a book labeled as women’s fiction, this sci-fi action stopped me: “He twirled his head slowly in a full circle….” A scene from The Exorcist immediately came to mind. In other stories, eyes have dropped, clung, and skewered other people.
Thanks for listening to my rant. Now that I’ve listed a few of my (many) pet peeves, I must confess. My writing is far from perfect. One of my (many) bad habits is overuse of the word that. I just don’t notice it! Luckily, the members of my writing groups aren’t shy about pointing out my overzealous that usage.
Do you have pet peeves when it comes to writing or reading? Do bad habits crop up again and again in stories you've written or read?
Source: Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. "Man hanging from a breaking tree limb."
The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1889. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e1-3628-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99