So you can read my books

Saturday, June 29, 2013





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

Hillary Clinton’s rpeated 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.)

Listen to the sample on my audio book's page:


  1. Hi Roland ... I dread the day when I put my work out for critiquing ... those ellipses need deleting. Just occasionally I have to do some more serious writing and then I'm in trouble ..

    Love the descriptive phrases you've used ... repeats; pancake writing - pancakes will never be the same again!; Lifeless, Undead Adverbs ..

    Excellent reminders - cheers Hilary

  2. Thanks, Hilary:
    It's hard to have your work critiqued, but you grow through hearing what you rather not hear! At least that's what I keep telling myself!! :-)

  3. Great tips Roland and Charlie does a great job narrating. Must be difficult to create seperate voices for the individul characters.

  4. Siv:
    Doesn't Charlie do a great job of narrating? I was so impressed that I am having him do the sequel, CREOLE KNIGHTS! I pray your weekend goes smoothly. Me? I'm working, of course. :-)

  5. i usually notice when i overuse a word. my biggest weakness is verb tenses. blech!

    great post!

  6. Late comment, sorry. As for Kerouac and his repetitive use of certain words, you know he was trying for a melodic reading in the Beat manner, right?

    You're right, about our 'popup words'. While I've been working with an excellent mentor she has identified that repeated uses of words is one thing I'm guilty of, so I now have a list of Watch-words that I search for during revisions.

    Perhaps these words get stuck in a loop in our heads and come out in our fingertips as we type. That's my excuse. . .

  7. D.G.:
    Kerouac succeeded in his Beat manner -- but only with those aware of what he was trying to achieve. Like with James Joyce in ULYSSES and Roger Zelazny in some of his later novels like DOORWAYS IN THE SAND -- sometimes a writer's literary devices get in the way of a reader enjoying his/her work.

    Keeping It Simple is the best way to reach the heart and mind of our readers I think -- but then Kerouac, James Joyce, and Roger Zelazny still sell millions. And me? Ah, don't ask about my sales!

    Yes, pop-up words certainly haunt all writers!!