fiction, Renni Brown, self editing, Writing

Why Novels Go into the Dog Pile

In the past two months I’ve read seven books. Okay, read is not the correct word. “Attempted to read,” is more accurate. I tossed four books into the ‘no read’ zone after the third chapter. This was two chapters too late. 

Four of the seven books are self-published and on Amazon. Of these three are first time authors. Three are ‘traditional print’ books with one first time author. 

photo by N. Rigg

Three of the books no longer occupy virtual shelves on my Kindle Fire. Two of the printed ones has a home on the bottom shelf of the bookcase–for now. They are all in the dog pile. At least on the Kindle the virtual poop doesn’t smell or take up space. 

I hated to do it but I couldn’t read the novels anymore. It’s unfortunate that two of them are ARC’s* for book reviews. I pushed myself through two (one an ARC) because the stories had me fascinated. Only one book out of seven, Catherine Ryan Hyde’s When I Found You, made the list of well written reads and retains a place on the physical book shelf.  

The proliferation of useless words and overuse of adverbs (the -ly’s) slung four books into the dog pile. I felt bad dropping those books. I’d feel worse slugging through the novel until the end. What did these less than desirable novels have in common? 

by MAlvaradoFrazier-Click to enlarge

The novels came peppered and over salted with useless words. The ‘-ing’s’ at the beginning of sentences drove me crazy. The ‘As’s’ all over the place made me cross-eyed. One writer used “Suddenly” in every chapter. Several writers had passive sentences on every page. After a dose of these needless words my interest waned. They took me out of the story. I spent more time rewriting the sentences in my head. 

I’m guilty of every one of those words on the graphic. My first manuscript came back drenched in a red sea of edits, you’d thought I typed in red. It wasn’t about using correct grammar, it was about passive sentences, the overuse of adverbs, and the ‘as’ construction. 

It took one book (recommended by the person who did the edit) to set me straight on this subject: Self Editing for the Fiction Writer: How to Edit Yourself into Print. Renni Brown and Dave King’s book Self-Editing devotes a chapter titled Sophistication to illustrate: 

     One easy way to make your writing seem more sophisticated is to avoid two stylistic constructions that are common to hack writers, namely:
Pulling off her gloves, she turned to face him
As she pulled off her gloves, she turned to face him.

     Both the “as” construction and the “-ing” construction as used above are grammatically correct  and express the action clearly and unambiguously.  But notice that both of these constructions take a bit of action (“She pulled off her gloves…”)  and tuck it away into a dependent clause (“Pulling off her gloves…”). 

This tends to place some of your actions at one remove from your reader, to make the actions seem incidental, unimportant.  And so if you use these constructions often, you weaken your writing.  (stronger writing?  She pulled on her gloves and turned to face him.)

Another reason to avoid the “as” and “-ing” constructions is that they sometimes give rise to physical impossibilities.  

“Disappearing into my tent, I changed into fresh jeans.”  The -ing construction forces simultaneity on two actions that can’t be simultaneous. The doctor didn’t duck into the tent and pull on pants at the same time. Better, stronger is:

I disappeared into my tent, found my jeans, and pulled them on. (Stronger writing and possible).

Do avoid the hack’s favorite constructions unless you have a good reason for using them.  And do catch all these things when you edit, not when you are writing.
And remember: The participle construction (Walking, Pulling, disappearing,  ing, ing ing) to begin a sentence) has a particularly AMATEURISH flavor when placed at the beginning of a sentence.

Writing, like a beautiful looking meal, is inedible when over salted. Do you have any ‘reading’ pet peeves you’d like to share? I’d like to hear them because anything that helps us become better writers is a good thing.

*ARC (Advanced Reading Copy) 

1 thought on “Why Novels Go into the Dog Pile”

  1. It's annoying when an author over punctuates a sentence. Equally, when the adverbs are labored, as in, 'interestedly,' 'frightfully.' Sentences that repeatedly start with a pronoun, she written up multiple times on a page, predictable sentence patterns generally. So I mean, starting with “as” in the gloves example might be the less jarring than starting with she if she is over-used on a page. Starting with an adverb or an adjective, now would that be weak writing also? Thusly, “Impatiently pulling off her gloves, she turned to face him.” or, “Breathless, pulling off her gloves, she turned to face him”.
    I would think that “disappering into my tent” is a basic POV violation, I mean, can you disappear to yourself anyhow? Probably it's ok, referring to others who would have witnessed the disappearance, but the first disappearing is a run on sentence.
    Great article and really thought provoking. All of this stuff matters!


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