Friday, March 25, 2011

Strengthening Your Fiction Part 1

Assuming you’ve already accomplished a strong plot, strong characterization (with believable and flawed characters readers can empathize with), realism, dialogue that counts, etc., there are a few smaller areas that, when tightened, can strengthen your fiction.

Filter Out Those Filter Words

A few months ago I kept hearing the term “filter words” and while I somewhat understood what these were, I never really knew they had a name. Filter words are those that needlessly filter the reader’s experience through a character’s POV (point of view).

Let’s look at an example: Lisa felt cold. Here, a filter exists between me (the reader) and Lisa which ultimately decreases immediacy. When I’m reading, I don’t want to feel like a narrator is telling me about Lisa; I want to be in Lisa’s shoes, seeing/feeling/hearing everything she does. Lisa pulled her coat tight, shuddering against the cold. Now without that filter, or layer, blocking me from the action, immediacy returns.

It’s natural to include filter words. From the moment we start reading and writing, we use them (Sam sees a cat. The cat looks sad. Sam hears the cat purr.) and often those habits are the hardest to break. I’ve come to accept that filter words will sneak into my first draft (admittedly, a lot of them), but I’ve made it part of my editing routine to get rid of them.

Here’s a list (which I compiled from various writing websites over time) that I use during the editing process:

v     felt/felt like
v     thought
v     watched
v     saw
v     realized
v     heard
v     sounded/sounded like
v     seemed/appeared
v     could
v     decided
v     wondered
v     touched
v     looked/noticed

(I tend to write in past tense, but if you’re writing in present simply change the tense then spend a day with your FIND button.)


Echoes, according to K. L. Going in her book Writing and Selling the YA Novel, are “words unnecessarily repeated in close proximity.” Generally, echoes are easy to spot and fairly effortless to remedy. An example would be this: “The dog barked incessantly. Megan shouted at the dog from her window.” The dog is an echo so you’d want to come up with another way to creatively reword the sentence(s). Here’s the example again without the echo: “The barking made it impossible to sleep. Fatigued, Megan shouted from her window, “If I fail tomorrow’s test, dog, it’s your fault!” (Not only was the echo eliminated, the dialogue brings the sentences to life.)

Are there other filter words you look for when editing? What else do you do to strengthen your fiction?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Might Vs. May

A lot of times when I’m editing, I think to myself: Am I using this correctly? And while most of the time I simply research the answer then apply it to my writing, I’ve decided to share my findings with you all.

Like today…may versus might. I think the majority of people use these two modals (fancy word for a helping verb that tells you more about the mood of the action verb) interchangeably, but there actually is a rule. Both words show something is potential, however something that may happen is more likely than something that might happen.

Mignon Fogarty, host of Grammar Girl, puts it this way, “use might when something is a mighty stretch.”

So while I may do a load of laundry today (something I do almost every day), I might scrub the tile grout in the bathroom (something my husband claims I haven’t done in years).

As with most rules, there are a few exceptions:
  1. One should never use the word "may" in a negative hypothetical because it could be read as “one does not have permission.” For example, saying “I may not go to the party” could be misread as “I’m not allowed to go to the party.” In this case, “might” should be used.
  2. Might is the past tense of may. So regardless of the mood implication, if the event is in the past, you always use might. I might have done laundry today. I might have scrubbed the grout.

Have these two words troubled you in the past? What other words trip you up?

Monday, March 7, 2011

Which One??

Sometimes I feel like the English language was created by a prankster who thought it'd be funny to confuse as many people as possible (not really, but sometimes). It's no secret a good portion of the American population can't even decipher your/you're or they're/there/their, but since the majority of you reading this are writers, I thought I'd cover a few others that are not often talked about.

Whose vs. Who’s

Whose = possessive form of who
Whose book is this?
I can’t remember whose umbrella I borrowed yesterday.

Who’s = contraction of “who is” or “who has”
Who’s driving the car?
I don’t know who’s been in my room.

A lot vs. Alot

A lot = a two word phrase used to mean "many" or "much".
I like you a lot.

Alot = this is not a word. Although a common mistake, don’t use it. Ever.

Affect vs. Effect

Affect = a verb most commonly meaning to influence or have an impact on someone or something.
How will this post affect your writing?

Effect = a noun most commonly meaning a result or something brought about by a cause.
I hope this post will have an effect on your writing.

Into vs. In to

Into = has to do with motion from outside to inside. Direction implied.
She went into her house.

In to = the two-word phrase combines two meanings—direction AND purpose with going “in” somewhere “to” do something.
She went in to grab her sunglasses.

Hope this helps. Happy writing!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Dreaded Semicolon

So I heard someone say the other day that the semicolon is the most feared punctuation on the planet, and while I don’t think we need to be overly dramatic about the use of it I would agree that the majority of the population either doesn’t understand and/or incorrectly uses the semicolon.

Maybe it’s the teacher in me, but I felt the need to give a little mini-lesson. So here it goes:

~  The most common way to use a semicolon is to combine two independent clauses (independent clause is just a fancy word for a simple sentence that contains a subject and a predicate). And here’s the trick…(dramatic pause)…the two independent clauses MUST be, well, independent, meaning they could each stand alone, meaning if you covered up the second independent clause, the first would read as a complete sentence and vice versa.

~ But you can’t just plop a semicolon between two complete sentences because you feel like it; a semicolon should be used when you want to form a bond between the two ideas or statements. (Like I just did.) This is usually done when the two sentences are related to or contrast with one another. Like these:

His eyes flicked to the hold he had around my wrist; his fingers overlapped with ease, encircling around once and a half as if the point needed to be beaten in further.

Call me tomorrow; I’ll tell you everything then.

I told Ryan to run for the hills; I wonder if he knew I was joking.

~ Now if you have a conjunction (and, but, or, yet, nor, for, so) between the two, leave out the semicolon. In this case, the conjunction is what ties the two independent clauses together so there would be no need for our lovely little friend the semicolon. (See how I did that?)  

~ For those of you who want to go one step further, a semicolon can also be used between an independent clause and a semi clause which are linked with a transitional phrase or a conjunctive verb. (I know, it’s a little wordy, but look at the examples.)

Everyone knows Shaun spray painted the locker; of course, it will never be proven.

Bill is Canadian; however, he lives in the United States.

I have paid my tuition; therefore, I expect a full year’s stay.

~ You can also use a semicolon between items in a series that contain internal punctuation. Like this:

He saw three girls: Sara, who was in his English class; Lisa, the coach’s daughter; and Megan, the one with the long blond hair.

I hope this helps. If you have any questions or ideas on what you’d like me to cover next, post them below. Until then, happy writing!