So you can read my books

Tuesday, January 22, 2013





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.



“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, re-read:

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.)

* IF you are naughty enough to leave me many comments, there will be MORE SINS TOMORROW, ROLAND


  1. Love, loved this.


    Hugs and chocolate,

  2. Shelly:
    I'm very happy you liked this. Thanks so much for sharing this, too. :-)

  3. I'm sure some of these 'sins' of writing show up in my drafts but are exorcised in the revisions.

    I find reading the writing out loud reveals many of the faults (repeating a word, too many 'ly' words, etc.) The ear hears what the eye cannot see.

    I like these writing posts!

  4. D.G.
    The former creative writer teacher in me is truly pleased that you like my writing posts!

    You're right: reading your prose aloud is a great help in spotting flaws you might otherwise overlook. And it helps in getting the rhythm of the words right.

    Printing your work on paper also helps you spot things you missed on the computer screen.

    Have a great tomorrow! :-) Roland

  5. I have to add a post script to your number 4. Don't use dialogue to recap what happened in the previous books in a series, i.e. "I know that John and Mary have issues with Bob because Bob had an affair with Mary's sister Susan before Susan went to work for Alan after his wife Sara was murdered by..."

    I read something similar in a book recently, by an author who should have known better.

  6. I noticed my secret agent word can change. I continue to be a thataholic, but I had a period where I was using 'so' a lot. At the end of my latest, I caught myself using 'when' a lot.

  7. Guilty!
    My blogging secret agent word is awesome. But here, that's all right.

  8. ...ah yes, Gaiman speaking of those elves, (along with perhaps the most useful advice any writer's ever offered.) Love that clip.

    "Bad hair day for prose." Roland, you're indeed one of a kind ;)

    Great post.


  9. LD:
    Yes, "Back-Story Dialogue" is really clunky!

    M Pax:
    There is an app called Wordle that puts your most often used words in a graphic image. It shakes you up to see it!

    When you're awesome using the word is perfectly fine! :-)

    That is one of my favorite Neil Gaiman's clips as well.

    Ron Howard is now in negotiations to do a live-action movie of THE GRAVEYARD BOOK. I hope it is done well!

    Glad you liked my unique turn of phrase! :-)