Tips, Writing

Write the Novel – Book Killers: adverbs to equivocators

Keith commented recently that he finds starting a book easier than editing it. I think both are hard. One is hard writing hard; the other is hard editing. Before leaving on a long journey, it’s helpful to collect information: look at a map, check out the weather, talk to people who’ve been there before.

Think of beginning a novel as a long journey. As we write, we need to be aware of book killers. Leaving them out is often easier than finding and removing them later. Of course, this same list can be used during the editing process.

I call these my mouse in a corner lists. They are tips I’ve collected by listening to dozens of writers at conferences, workshops, in e-mail postings and blogs, and other places that writers speak. This is the first of three lists; the other two will be posted next week, and the week after that.


Adverbs are shorthand. We writers think they telegraph information to the reader without us having to write it out. They don’t. Instead of writing, “He touched her face lovingly,” write out the sensual details of this man touching this woman’s face. If the word ends in -ly, ditch it.

Author intrusion

Whose POV shines through, the character or the author? If the answer to the question “Why is this here?” is “Because we need or want it here,” that’s author intrusion.


Word cliches are bad, but plot cliches are worse. We learn plot cliches by reading other writers, especially bad writers.  If we’ve seen it in books before more than three times it’s a cliche. Examples of plot cliches include the protagonist forgetting to charge her cell phone or a character being interrupted just when he’s giving the protagonist the clue he needs to crack the case.

Confused or weak sentence structure

  • Read sentences out loud. If the tongue trips over it, rewrite it.
  • The last word(s) in a sentence are the most important; the first word(s) are the second most important. Don’t put the powerful words in the middle.
  • Clean up anything that dangles. Dangling modifiers, participles and prepositions are dangerous enough as book killers to spend a little extra time here.

Dangling modifier

A dangling modifier is a word order and/or punctuation error that leads the reader to get lost in a sentence. Readers who come unprepared are likely to die of thirst while wandering lost in the sentence, trying to determine it’s meaning.

VanHouten was arrested Saturday night in a small town with a briefcase containing half a million dollars. [If the town had half a million dollars in a briefcase that should certainly help the budget.]

Fix #1: Put words that relate to one another as close to one another as possible in the sentence. Who had the money? VanHouten had the money. Therefore, “VanHouten” and “money” need to be as close as possible to each other in the sentence.

VanHouten had half a million dollars with him when he was arrested Saturday night in a small town.

Fix #2: Split the information into different sentences.

VanHouten was arrested Saturday night in a small town. The briefcase he carried contained half a million dollars.

Dangling Participle

A participle is a word formed from a verb and used as an adjective. Many of them end in -ing. A dangling participle is an adjective intended to modify a noun that is not actually present or is poorly placed in the text.

  • Specializing in antique linens, her bad advice harmed my aunt. [Who gave bad advice is missing.]
  • Flitting gaily from flower to flower, the football player watched the bee. [Dangling participles often conjure up funny images, but obscure who is doing what.]

Fix: Try not to begin a sentence with an -ing word. If we must do so, ask who or what is doing that action and make that person or thing the subject of the sentence.

  • Mrs. Roberts, a specialist in antique linens, gave my aunt bad advice.
  • The bee, flitting gaily from flower to flower, attracted the football player’s attention.
  • Flitting gaily from flower to flower, the bee attracted the football player’s attention.

Dangling Prepositions

Look for strings of prepositions, particularly multiple uses of same preposition. In some cases, preposition overuse is easy to identify because it produces a run-on sentence.

We made a bad decision to go to a picnic on the pier in the seaside resort at the end of the deserted road.

This sentence has 6 prepositions, including 2 uses of to very close to one another.

Fix: Turn some prepositional phrases into adjectives; eliminate repeated prepositions; use descriptions in place of prepositional phrases. Often the run-on sentence works better as two or three shorter sentences.

We went for a seaside picnic at the deserted resort. It was a bad decision.


  • Every dialog is a contest for power; avoid too much agreement. Make our characters obstructive, manipulative, argumentative and disagreeable in conversations.
  • Question and response is symmetry; it dilutes tension. Question and evasion is asymmetry; it changes the power dynamics of the conversation. If two characters must agree, look for the “but” in the situation because it is the “but” that moves the situation to the next step.
  • Generally we want our point of view character to be in control of conversations, but sometimes that character losing a conversation  (as in lose versus win) can lead to learning something about the character, such as how he handles anger.
  • People who share the same culture make certain assumptions. Misinterpretation of culture can be used for either comedy or conflict.

Dialog tags and beats

  • In the skeleton draft: use said only and use it only when necessary to avoid confusion about who is speaking. In later drafts, we might thow in some variety, but chances are we’ll discover that we don’t need to do this.
  • We can’t laugh a line of dialog. Try it; you’ll choke. Nor can we chortle, guffaw, hiss, etc. dialog. We say dialog. Period.
  • Use beats instead of dialog tags whenever possible. A beat is a description of action, placed either before or after the dialog. They are a great replacement for adverbs. He said slowly, “Chloe is back in town.” versus He closed his eyes and turned his face to the sun. “Chloe is back in town.”
  • Beats at the beginning of a conversation set the dynamics; beats at the end of a conversation change the tension. His voice was quiet. “I’m sure you have your reasons.” versus. “I’m sure you have your reasons.” His voice was quiet.
  • Beats are rarely needed in the middle of a conversation. Allow the characters (and the reader) to experience the conversation as is.
  • Strengthen characters’ voices and make them so unique that neither beats not tags are needed to identify who is talking.

Avoid pseudo-beats

  • Common pseudo-beats in dialog include turning, running a hand through the hair, tapping a pen on a table, gazing at another character, taking deep breaths, and smiling. Think of them as fillers. They contribute nothing to character development or plot advancement.
  • Smiling is particularly bad. If our characters are involved in the aftermath of a murder, we do not want them smiling all the time. It makes them too happy for the story.
  • Common pseudo-beats in settings include eating or having a drink, taking a walk, driving from one place to another, or doing a background activity—picking up dry cleaning, going to the library—that people do in real life, but which has no relationship to the story. Having a character shove his coffee cup across the table for a waiter to refill it is a pseudo-beat. Having a character shove a cup of coffee so hard that coffee splashes on the table at the moment he makes a decision is a real beat.


Words that end with –ness, –ize, –ly, or –ingly words often dilute a story. Use these words sparingly. Sometimes, our word processing program or writing software can do a search for these endings. For example, if we can look for “ize” – not full words, we need to go to each place this appears and think about changing it. Repeat with the other work endings.

Equivocators and wishy-washy phrases

Avoid words such as about, maybe, sometimes, likely, and so on.The myth is that these words indicate a character’s uncertainty or an unwillingness to commit. In reality, they dilute both dialog and description. Make characters decisive in dialog and action. “Maybe John is a little irresponsible, but he would likely have been worried when Matilda didn’t show up for work.” versus. “Face it. John is irresponsible. When Matilda missed work, he didn’t even phone her.”

I hope to see you again on Thursday, June 12, for Critique Nightmares – what to do when our friend’s manuscript that we agreed to critique turns out to be bad, oh so bad.

Thursday, June 17, we continue with Book Killers – Filter Words to Lack of Attitude.