What They Are Saying...

"This book was a fast easy read, and a fun romp. All in all, the book charmed me."

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Write Tight, part 2 – The Function of the Conjunction

We all remember the catchy little tune from School House Rock. Conjunction Junction, what's your function? Hookin' up words and phrases and clauses.

… or maybe that's just me, showing my age ...

And, But, and Or will get you pretty far!

Yes, that's true. But it's probably not exciting to read. Consider the following:

    The noise startled me and I ran for the door and I picked up my handy ax!

Linking all these actions together makes the reader do a whole bunch of work. Additionally, cramming all that into one sentence slows the pacing down. This is danger! This is potential disaster! You can convey that to your reader with small, tight sentences.

    The noise startled me. I ran for the door. I picked up my handy ax!

Little sentences, easy and quick to read, pick up the pace, adding to the emotion of the passage. Now your reader not only senses the excitement and drama of the situation, they're part of it.

Frankly, we -- as conversationalists -- use conjunctions. A lot. Many people use “and” as a filler word, said when they want to keep talking but they haven't found the words yet. It's right up there with “um” and “like” and “so”. Record a conversation sometime and see for yourself! At times, we string together all sorts of sentences that have no real link between them. But whoever you are talking to doesn't notice that since they're probably doing it, too.

Most of us write as we talk, just streaming out the words and actions and information as quickly as they come into our head.


Occasionally things really should be linked together, and “and” seems reasonable.

    He walked to the window and stared out into the flowery field.

Sure. That's fine. Nothing exciting really going on, so no reason to shorten that up. However, it's not really interesting either. It reads more like blocking, directing the actor's movements (he walked, he stared). How about:

    He walked to the window, staring out into the flowery field.

This seems softer, more humanly and less robotic.

Another crime (and I do it ALL the time, ask my editor) is start sentences with “and.”

    I always say “Please.” And “Thank you.”

In the case above, you can make an argument that a character is speaking. The thought of “and thank you” came later so they simply added it. Also, using "and" to indicate math, or more than one individual, is also fine. 

    Two and two are four. 
  He and his dog went for a walk.

There are times, however, when starting a sentence with “and” forces to reader to do the addition.

    He liked many of the weapons in the display case. And he preferred the ones with wooden handles.

Maybe in the setting this makes sense. Maybe it can be tightened up. 

    He liked many of the weapons in the display case, especially the ones with wooden handles.

Consider it a red flag -- double check your work for sentences starting with "and." 


Starting sentences with “but” isn't uncommon (I've done it already in this article), however it can be overused quite easily. You're better off looking for them, then changing them to “however”, or “on the other hand”, something more insightful and clever. Keep in mind, alternatives can help with pacing.

    She always wanted a pony. But never thought that day would ever come.

    She always wanted a pony, yet never thought that day would ever come.

    She always wanted a pony. However, she never thought that day would come.


“Or” is an option. This or that. Here or there. As a result, it's rarely used incorrectly since, frankly, we don't often have options.

    All he had to do was take the sword from the stone ... or go home, put his feet up by the fire, and enjoy a cappuccino.

How to fix this? A dedicated edit in your work. Search for the word “and,” “but,” and “or” and see how many times you've used them. Yes, each and every one. Eliminating or changing these small words can have major impacts on your work!

Coming next, Part 3 – Favorite Words, Mine... not yours!

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Write Tight, Part 1 - To Be or Not To Be

Part 1 - To Be or Not To Be

Many folks have complimented my style of writing, describing it as “tight”. As a rule, I don't use flowery or perfumey words nestled in extra long sentences. I get to the point.

Keep in mind, writing styles, like fast cars and tight clothes, are a matter of personal opinion. I remember way back in college reading works of Willa Cather, an acclaimed writer and story teller, yet my experience felt like having my teeth slowly pulled. 

She was NOT a tight writer.

Willa Cather
Such disappointments only gave greater zest to the nights when we acted charades, or had a costume ball in the back parlour, with Sally always dressed like a boy. Frances taught us to dance that winter, and she said, from the first lesson, that Ántonia would make the best dancer among us. On Saturday nights, Mrs. Harling used to play the old operas for us—"Martha," "Norma," "Rigoletto"--telling us the story while she played. Every Saturday night was like a party.” -My Átonia

Oh, my God ... get to the point! No disrespect, Willa ...

Yes. It's just me.

To her credit, Ms. Cather did an exceptional job of “active voice” – albeit annoying – which I've learned is critical in writing.

The Nemesis: To Be

In Spanish (a romantic language), there are two forms of “to be”: a familiar (ser) and a formal (estar). In English, we have just the one: “to be”. It takes many forms. The present tense (I am, you are, he/she/it is), the past tense (I was, you were, he/she/it/ was), the past participle (I/you have been, he/she/it has been) and the present participle (I am being...bored). Exactly. Reading the verb to be is boring.

I was walking down the street.
She was standing in the window.
He was jumping up and down in joy.

So, nix it.

I walked down the street,
She stood in the window.
He jumped up and down for joy.

Tighter writing, less words, more action. Done.

This is trickier than it seems. Especially when you consider the verb “to be” indicates fact. Consider,

       Jack Harkness was immortal.

Kinda tough to dance around that one. Remember the goal. A writer gives out facts all the time. It doesn't have to read like an equation.

       Jack Harkness = immortal

What if you finesse the information?

       Jack Harkness often cursed his immortality.

Wow. Not only did we learn about Jack's immortality, but we got some sense regarding his emotions around it. By eliminating the fact, we gained insight.


This isn't to say you should eliminate the verb altogether. When characters talk, for instance, the verbs gets used all the time.

“Where are you now?”
“I'm at the grocery. Is there anything you want me to get?”
“I'm almost home. I'll call if there's no milk.”

Trying to lose “to be” can just get in the way.

“Give me your location.”
“I just pulled up to the grocery. Can you think of anything to get?”
“Let me get home. I noticed a shortage of milk earlier.”

Possible, yes, but not necessary. Your characters talk the way, well, you want them to. Once outside the conversation, however, tighten it up!

(For bonus points, how many times did I use the verb "to be" in this article, excluding the examples?)

Coming next, Part 2 - The Function of Conjunction Junction