So you can read my books

Tuesday, August 9, 2011




Just about every writer unconsciously has a SECRET AGENT word that creeps in on every page it seems.

Hillary Clinton’s repeated word is “eager” (can you believe it? the committee that wrote Living History should have their typing fingers slapped).

Cosmopolitan magazine editor Kate White uses “quickly” over a dozen times in A Body To Die For.

Jack Kerouac’s crutch word in On the Road is “sad,” sometimes
doubly so – “sad, sad.”

Ann Packer’s in The Dive from Clausen’s Pier
is “weird.”

SECRET AGENT words are usually unremarkable little critters. That’s why they slip under the editorial radar –

they’re not even worth noticing, much less repeating,

but there you have it, pop, pop, pop, up they come -

like that rodent in the golf course in CADDY SHACK. Readers, however, notice them, get irked by them and are eventually distracted by them,

and put down the book never to pick it back up. Ouch.

“I wanted to know but couldn’t understand what her face had to say, so I waited until Alice was ready to tell me before asking what she meant.”

Victor Standish is trying to say something in this sentence, but who cares? The writing is so flat, limp, listless it just dies on the page. Talk about a "bad hair day" for prose!

You can’t fix it with a few replacement words – you have to give it depth, texture, character.

Flat writing is a sign that you’ve lost interest or are intimidated by your own novel's scope. It shows that you’re veering toward mediocrity, that your brain is fatigued,

that you’ve lost your inspiration.

So use it as a lesson. When you see flat writing on the page, it’s time to rethink, refuel and rewrite.


Actually, totally, absolutely, completely, continually, constantly, continuously, literally, really, unfortunately, ironically, incredibly, hopefully, finally –

these and others are words that promise emphasis, but too often they do the reverse. They suck the meaning out of every sentence.

I defer to People Magazine for gilding its articles with empty, valueless adverbs. A recent issue refers to an “incredibly popular, groundbreakingly racy sitcom.” That’s tough to say even when your lips aren’t moving.

In Still Life with Crows, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child (experts at needless filler to pad a book) describe a mysterious row of corn in the middle of a field:

“It was, in fact, the only row that actually opened onto the creek.” Here are two attempts at emphasis (”in fact,” “actually”), but they just junk up the sentence. Remove them both and the word “only” carries the burden of the sentence with efficiency and precision.

(When in doubt, try this mantra: Precise and spare; precise and spare; precise and spare.)

In dialogue, empty adverbs may sound appropriate, even authentic,

but that’s because they’ve crept into American conversation in a trendy way. If you’re not watchful, they’ll make your characters sound wordy, childish and dated.

Look at this hilarious clunker from THE DA VINCE CODE by Dan Brown:

“Almost inconceivably, the gun into which she was now staring was clutched in the pale hand of an enormous albino.”

Puke! “Almost inconceivably” –

that’s like being a little bit dead, isn't it?

Hopefully, that “enormous albino” will ironically go back to actually flogging himself while incredibly saying his prayers continually as we regretfully heave the book into the thankfully empty trash can.


Be careful of using dialogue to advance the plot.

Readers can tell when characters talk about things they already know, or when the speakers appear to be having a conversation for our benefit.

You never want one character to imply or say to the other, “Tell me again, Batman: What are we doing next?”

Avoid words that are fashionable in conversation.

Ann Packer’s characters are so trendy the reader recoils. ” ‘What’s up with that?’ I said. ‘Is this a thing [love affair]?’ ” “We both smiled. ” ‘What is it with him?’ I said. ‘I mean, really.’ ” Her book is only a few years old, and already it’s dated.

Dialogue offers glimpses into character the author can’t provide through description.

Hidden wit, thoughtful observations, a shy revelation, a charming aside all come out in dialogue, so the characters *show* us what the author can’t *tell* us.

But if dialogue helps the author distinguish each character, it also nails the culprit who’s promoting a hidden agenda by speaking out of character.

Setting your own high standards and sticking to them is the mark of a pro.

Be one, write like one, and don’t cheat.


Don’t take a perfectly good word and give it a new wardrobe, so it serves as something else. The New York Times does this all the time.

Instead of saying, “as a director, she is meticulous,” the reviewer will write, “as a director, she is known for her meticulousness.”

Until she is known for her obtuseness.

The “ness” words cause the eye to stumble, come back, reread:

Mindlessness, characterlessness, courageousness, statuesqueness, preciousness –

you get the idea. You might as well pour ball bearings into your readers’ mouths.

(Not even Victor Standish would do that!)

Not all “ness” words are bad – goodness, no – (couldn't resist; LOL) but they are all suspect.

The “ize” words are no better – finalize, conceptualize, fantasize, categorize. The “ize” hooks itself onto words as a short-cut but stays there like a parasite.

Policemen now say to each other about witnesses they’ve interrogated, “Did you statementize him?” Some shortcut.

Not all “ize” words are bad, either, but they do have the ring of the vulgate to them –

“he was brutalized by his father,” “she finalized her report.” Just try to use them rarely.

Use them too often is like jabbing your reader in the eye repeatedly. Guess what that reader does with your book? Ouch.

(Many thanks to Pat Holt for the wisdom of these pointers.)




  1. These are wonderful! And actually, I am really a fan of Neil Gaiman and his incredibly understandable and completely useful common sensicalness.

  2. Julie :
    I am a great Neil Gaiman fan, too. I guess you could already tell that. LOL.

    I'm told that HBO is making a mini-series of AMERICAN GODS. I can't wait.

    I'm really happy you found something you could use in the 5 deadly sins and in Neil's advise to all of us! Roland

  3. Hi Roland .. love this and the explanations .. 'under the radar' .. and Julie's comment.. Never heard of Neil Gaiman .. but that's understandable .. though now I know & I like his approach .. go do.

    Cheers - Hilary

  4. Great series of posts this week, Roland. I've seen a tonne that makes a lot of sense and will help!

  5. Definitely a great list (note that definitely is unnecessary but I have used it for emphasis, probably unnecessarily *winks*)

    For that first one, I love using word clouds, as my crutch words seem to change by work. I've mostly conquered my qualifiers though. I think women are taught to speak hesitantly and so do so in writing, too--took about 3 books to get rid of that inclination...

  6. Hilary :
    I discovered him when I saw the awesome cover to AMERICAN GODS, buying, reading, and loving (most of it - some got a bit out there).
    I'm always happy to see you here.

    Chris :
    I dashed off to your blog and found some great articles there, too. Thanks for staying to chat, Roland

    Hart :
    I'm really happy whenever I see a comment from you here. We all start out with flaws from our past that we have to discard on our journey to become published, don't we? Glad you liked my post today.

  7. I'm not quite sure if she's wearing boots, thigh high silk stocking, or both. (Oh rats, that's Megan Fox...will try not to look at the lips.)

    I rather like the word "eager".
    "Weird"... I prefer eccentric and unusual myself.
    I'm attracted to the words "still and yet"...just terrible. I also like to say "seriously" a lot, but not in writing...much. :)

    Flat writing and adverbs. Isn't it odd how all these rules are being broken anyway. Wait, isn't "seriously" and adverb? I can't tell you how many "in facts and actuallys" I've deleted from my writing.

    So if I chant your mantra the entire day it should install a device in my brain that will automatically absorb all aspects of bad writing? ;)

    Ok, now that's one too many adverbs.
    Hmm, you should teach English Composition. :) I'd take your class.
    What? Fantasize is an awesome word.

    This was a great post, Roland. I've learned much.

  8. Oh Roland, you got me. I use 'just' a lot. I have to carve it out of my manuscript every 2nd edit. Bleh. And the puppet characters just feeding lines to make sure the reader isn't lost...done that. *smacks hand* This was a helpful post. Thanks! :)
    Edge of Your Seat Romance

  9. I used to have an obsession with the words though and actually. It was quite annoying! LOL! Thankfully I've learned to weed them out.

  10. This was great Roland. I burst out laughing a few times. I need a good laugh this afternoon with adding a major scene to bulk up BG.

    I never though I'd see the day when I couldn't add five thousand words in a day. With BG's style it's difficult. Seventeen-year-old boys just don't gush on and on... lol.

    I hope you're cooler these days.

  11. Laila :
    With Megan it's both boots and silk stockings. It's a guy thing! LOL.

    Just go with your instinct. Elmore Leonard had it right : if what you've just put down reads as if it were written -- rewrite. If it reads as if it were true, keep it. :)

    My high school students loved my creative writing course.

    Raquel :
    Hey, I got myself with some of these pointers! Ouch. I'm glad you feel my post helped a bit.

    Heather :
    Alliteration is my weakness. Like spices, a little can go a long way! LOL.

    Michael :
    As a teacher, I always tried to make my lessons fun and funny. I'm glad my post made your afternoon more bearable.

    You may have to insert a whole new incident into your protagonist's adventures so as to insure your added words don't read like filler. You can do this. I've read your work. You have talent, Roland

    Lola X :
    Your blog is fascinating and fun, too! Thanks for visiting and chatting, Roland

  12. FABULOUS post, Roland. Pat Holt's "The Ten Mistakes" is one of the best articles on writing ever and your examples are outstanding. Me? I'm fond of phrases with the word moment: in a moment, after a moment, for a moment, etc.

    And isn't that line from Dan Brown too funny, or at least it would be if it weren't almost inconceivably poor writing. Ahem.

    Dialogue is the toughest one because if a writer doesn't use current speak, especially if it's a youngish character, the back and forth tends to sound stilted and artificial - at least for a few weeks.

    I use my blog to make all these mistakes (and more!), the hope is that I'll work them out of my system. :)

  13. VR :
    Wasn't Pat Holt's "Ten Mistakes" filled with witty advice?

    WORDLE is a great tool to help me spot my weak, repeating SECRET AGENT words.

    I remember sitting there in my chair after having read that line in THE DA VINCI CODE and shaking my head. But his history, art knowledge, and puzzles were top-notch.

    Dialogue for the young teen can be simulated with the generic short-cuts kids take with regular vocabulary -- but you're right it is very tough!

    Thanks for visiting and chatting. I really enjoyed it. Roland

  14. Great reminder post, Roland, and humorous to boot! Sniff, but I like my undead adverbs... actually, totally, really, and finally. Nice thing about "bad hair day" prose is that there is always such thing as revision, to spice up scenes later on. :)