Writing Tip (On Progressive Comparison)

Normally when I post these tips, they are the accumulation of study I’ve done (I try to draw from at least two different respectable sources when deciding grammar) as well as my own sense of how the language works. Today’s is a little bit more of the latter, as I haven’t found many sources talking about this.

What I’m referring to as progressive comparison are phrases like “more and more” and “higher and higher”.

My general thinking is that they are redundant. But they aren’t always, and these can get tricky.

To be perfectly honest, seeing phrases like that just plain irk me. But lots of things irk lots of people, and sometimes for no good reason. That said, there are perfectly acceptable cases of this language. Consider:

The balloon went higher and higher.

Higher and higher they soared.

I would consider the first phrase to be redundant, and the second to be more acceptable. The reason is in the “went”. If they “went” higher, this implies a progressive motion, so the second “higher” only serves to establish what has already been established. The second sentence does not have this, and “higher they soared” both sounds like a fragment and draws no comparison, rendering it incomplete.

Of course, much of this is my own opinion. I would read “The balloon went higher” and infer the same meaning as “The balloon went higher and higher” unless some other point of reference were drawn:

The balloon went higher than the clouds.

If no other point of reference is present, I can usually safely assume the balloon is going higher than itself, which is to imply a progressive motion.

Obviously, it isn’t always this easy:

More ducks crossed the road.

More and more ducks crossed the road.

The first phrase might leave me wondering “more ducks than what crossed the road?” where the second implies a chain of ducks, which is the meaning I wished to convey. There does exist a safety net though, in that usually that question is answered by the context of the sentence:

A line of ducks started across the road, and he slowed the car and finally stopped. More ducks crossed the road, and he waited patiently.

With the context, we can once again draw a point of reference. More ducks crossed the road than were already crossing the road, thus “more and more” looks redundant.

In my experience, that context is almost always there, so I almost always change a progressive comparison to use only one instance of the word. I also find that the writing comes off smoother and less redundant overall, and possibly a little less cliché.

What do you think? Agree? Disagree? Know of a grammar journal that proves me wrong? Leave a comment, I’d love to hear what you have to say.

Writing Tip (On Qualifiers)

Qualifiers can be tricky, and whether they are effective depends on the use. That is, there’s no clear-cut “always use” or “never use” rules. But in editing my own writing, I find I often use them improperly.

What is a qualifier?

A qualifier precedes a noun and gives a sense of degree. In “The car was sort of red” the qualifier would be sort of. This particular line works well enough in dialogue and subjective narration, but overall, there’s not much place for it in objective narration. All that does is make the writer sound unsure. Was the car red or not? What is “sort of” red, does it mean pink? Orange? Make up your mind, writer!

Consider how drastically the following qualifiers change the narration:

He was kind of tired, so he went to sleep.

She shrieked as the man plunged the knife somewhat hard into her chest.

The bullet flew pretty close to his head.

Now without the qualifiers:

He was tired, so he went to sleep.

She shrieked as the man plunged the knife into her chest.

The bullet flew close to his head.

Now, these aren’t perfect, but they’re much stronger. In the case of the last, the qualifier was almost more of a placeholder. How close? Personally I’d change this sentence to “The bullet flew so close to his head he could hear the wind ripping by his ear” or something of the like. But again, this isn’t an always-and-never issue. For example, if you write “He woke up at seven A.M. every day” your character will likely come off as obsessive, possible pedantic, where “He usually woke up around seven A.M.” implies a more laid-back, casual character. The trick then is to know what you want to convey and just write that. Don’t write what you kind of want to, don’t tell a story close to what you mean, just write what you want to write, and use qualifiers as part of the process, not placeholders (as I often do) or worse, for lack of better words.

Writing Tip (On Humility)

I last sent a query letter on January 25th. Boy, do I regret it. And all of the other ones I’ve sent.

In the past week I’ve come to realize something about myself: My query letters are terrible.

I’ll be honest. I think I’m a good writer. Or at least I have the potential to be. I think most writers probably think that way. The trick is to not get caught up in it.

It doesn’t matter how good you think you are. You have something to learn. I thought my writing was good and my query letters would automatically be good as well, so I looked up a few and then started sending off my own.

I had the form more or less right. But that’s not the important part. I was describing things in great detail, adding in too many characters, summing up  my book in themes and morals. That’s not how it works.

I learned what I was doing wrong from a variety of sources. The awesome folks at the Query Tracker forum were the first clue that I had it all wrong. Then I read Elana Johnson’s blog and e-book on querying. These two were enough to get me on the right track, I think. Now I’m in the process of reading the entire catalog of Query Shark posts. I’m going to finish those, but already I can see a few more tweaks I need to make to my query letters, and I won’t be sending any more until all of this is finished.

I sent out queries to some agents I really would’ve liked to work with. I think I killed my chances by sending them crappy queries. Some humility could’ve spared that. I thought I was a good writer and I looked up some blogs on query structure, and I made the assumption that that was enough. It wasn’t. Now I’m going to make sure I have a top-notch query letter before I send out any more. Lesson learned.

While reading through the Query Shark pages, I started to notice something. A lot of times, a query will get a response along the lines of “don’t do this” and in the revision, that same exact phrase will be present and followed by another “don’t do this”. Nothing says “I can’t write” like thinking your writing is so good you can just ignore someone telling you otherwise. Especially someone who actually works in the industry. This isn’t to say that you should bow to every hint and suggestion you ever get; sometimes people have the best intentions but they just don’t know your manuscript and their suggestion just doesn’t work (and if you find yourself writing off every bit of advice as such, chances are you’re either doing a terrible job of summing up your manuscript, or worse, you can’t write). But if you notice a lot of people asking the same questions or taking issue with the same phrasing, then there’s something you need to look at.

Of course, much of this can be avoided by doing the right amount of work at the beginning. In my case, I should’ve read the entire archive of Query Shark instead of just a few blogs on structure. I should’ve headed over to the Query Tracker forum and at the very least read other people’s posts and responses to them (or better yet, posted my own for feedback).

Writing is work. Don’t ever assume your writing is so good that you don’t have to work to get it right.

Writing Tips (On Adverbs)

Last night I was reading an article re-tweeted by Neil Gaiman (article here: http://www.openculture.com/2012/01/writing_rules.html) and it made me realize two things: One, I really need to pick up a copy of American Gods, and two, you learn something new every day.

I went over this list of writing tips and found some tips I hadn’t heard before. And I realized some of these “don’t do”s are things I “do do”. (Yeah, I said “do do”, go ahead and get your giggles out of your system, I’ll wait.)

At first I was upset. The usual “I broke writing rule X, I’ll never get published, AAAHHHH!!!” followed. But after I calmed down I looked at it another way. Realizing I’ve done something wrong is just another way of saying I’ve learned something. And I don’t think I ever want to stop learning, especially when it comes to writing.

Every writer has their weaknesses. We all have that one word we can never spell correctly, that one rule that always slips our mind, we all have an Achilles’ heel. These are not road blocks, they aren’t the train tracks with the lowered bars and blinking lights crossing your path to becoming a published author. They’re just opportunities to learn.

Don’t ever stop reading, don’t ever stop writing, and for goodness’ sake don’t ever stop reading about writing.

I think from time to time I’ll post a writing tip I’ve picked up along my own path. I’m not really a published author yet, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t learned a thing or two. And if you don’t believe me, you can always comment on my blog and tell me why you think I’m wrong. Or you can look it up yourself and see what other, more professional people have to say. I gladly welcome either.

Let’s start today. There’s no day like today, right?

If you clicked on the link I provided earlier, you’ll see Elmore Leonard’s list at the top. (If you didn’t click the link I provided earlier, why not?) Some of his have been shortened, but I found two tips at greater length:

Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. 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 and go to the dictionary.

Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” … he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs”.

I’ll try to explain my reasoning for following this rule. Let’s pretend for a second I would ever write the following line:

“OH GOD!!!” he screamed loudly.

And let’s ignore the caps-lock and multiple exclamation marks (bonus tip: don’t use them). There is a lot of redundancy in this tiny sentence. Focusing on “loudly”, why is that necessary? Has anyone ever screamed quietly? And let’s look at the “screamed”. Well, there’s an exclamation mark at the end of that sentence (three, but if I was editing this I would cut at least two of them out). When someone is exclaiming something, it means they’re putting a lot of energy into whatever they’re exclaiming. Do you need to tell your readers that someone is screaming an exclamation? Probably not. Especially if there’s context:

John’s mother died before his eyes.

“Oh God!”

If you watched your mother die (and I pray this never happens to you) chances are you would scream, unless your mother is a Disney stepmother, in which case you’d go and marry a prince. That bit of dialogue is enough. Adding “he screamed” or worse “he screamed loudly” is telling the reader something you’ve already told them. I don’t know about you, but I hate being told things I already know. Your job as a writer is to tell me a story, not lecture me. It’s fluff. Destroy it.

I went to one of my manuscripts, which is 440 pages, and counted up my “said”s. As long as I haven’t mis-counted, only one of them is followed by an adverb. And I do feel like that one is important. Go into your manuscript and get rid of yours. I’ll bet your manuscript isn’t longer than mine (and if it is, you should know someone already wrote Atlas Shrugged) so if I can get that far and use only one, so can you. And if you find yourself doing what I did and thinking “but I need this one” and especially if you find yourself doing it for more than one, just remember:

I used one too many.