Pet Peeves #1

As those of you know who get my writing e-newsletter, Sumo the cat has strong opinions about writing. Here are a few of his special tips, or Things Sumo Advises You To Stop Doing:

  • Ending sentences with “. . . .” Especially ending a lot of ’em that way. So you thought that was maybe literary? It ain’t.
  • Using a phrase like “They all laughed.” Hey, if I think it’s funny, I’ll let you know.
  • Having a character drink tea and muse. (And it’s only female characters who do this, so you know you’re headed for a big emotional jag.) Man, I’m skipping six pages here.
  • Describe a character by having them look in a mirror. Think about this, people. Don’t you know what you look like without looking in a mirror?
  • Killing off a character’s pet. This needs no explanation.
  • Blocking scenes with idiotic movement details: “She leaned against the desk.” “He leaned back in his chair.” “She set her tea cup down.” This is fiction, not the movies. Your head is not a camera recording real life. Stop it, OK?
  • Beginning chapters with a dream. I know, I know, you want to start your character off in the morning and so you might as well peel off some subconscious drivel from the night before, am I right? It’s a yawner, folks.
  • Ending a chapter with “And then the volcano erupted.” Look, if you want a cliff hanger, make it something that isn’t going to give me indigestion.
  • Using the word neutering. I mean, ain’t no call ever to use that word in a book.

He has much more advice to bestow. But right now he’s napping.

4 Responses

  1. mythusmage says:

    “Her favorite activity was neutering male egos” P)

  2. Kay says:

    A fine line to be sure, but Sumo still hates it.

  3. Anonymous says:

    a (har-rumpf; did I spell that right?)

    This is the remote John Dalmas, remote geographically (I left Spokane in 2005 for the wilds of Ohio), and remote in generation (I was born in 1926), both of which make it all right to email attractive young women in the Pacific NW.

    With some experience in creative writing, I fancy myself knowledgeable, even though I’ve never won an award. (My first novel, *The Yngling,* was serialized in Analog in 1969, and has since been published by Pyramid, Jove, Tor, and Baen. It can be useful to get rights reverted when something goes out of print.)

    In a recent post, you recommended (I quote): “_Conflict or Tension on Every Page._ Focus your story around a problem. Out of problems arise conflict. To deepen the conflict sufficiently, make sure something terribly important is at stake. You don’t need meaningless action to tart up scenes, but you do at least need sustained and escalating tension. That’s a high bar. Aim high.”

    That’s a familiar principle. I heard you state it some years ago in an interview or on a panel, and as usual, confronted by an unequivocal statement, exceptions sprang immediately to mind. Yet it is a very useful observation, one we can all make good use of. _But it’s not a natural law,_ not holy writ. There are entertaining stories and ideas to which it doesn’t apply. Thus this email.

    In fact, the closest thing to a firm and binding rule I can name is: “If it works, it works.”

    An example is Jan Karon’s charming *Midford Series.* Intense? No way, “Lit’ry?” Darned if I know. But I do know it is good hearted, amusing, kind, loving… (Yes, I do sometimes end a sentence with ellipses.) And I was reminded again by Lois Bujold’s marvelous *The Sharing Knife Series.* I’m currently on Book 3, and taken collectively, it’s turning out to be the most enjoyable work of fiction I’ve ever read. And I’ve been reading grown-up’s books since I went to live with my mom in 1937, and plunged into her stash, beginning with the World War One classic *Three on a Match.*

    Both Knife and Match were built around a problem, but they were not force fed. They have their own paces.

    My loong (180,000-word) novel *Soldiers* (Baen 2001) was another. The story of a terrible threat, it is rich in characters but has no focal protagonist. It is in fact a sort of tapestry with numerous subplots and sketches, addressing many issues, and has what I’ve been told is a beautiful and poignant romance. It was a list-leader, had a sell-through of 79.2%, and quickly earned out the advance. It’s now out of print, but I commend it to your attention as an example of effective “rule breaking.”

    Maybe we’ll run into each other at MisCon or SpoKon.

    John Dalmas

  4. Kay says:

    Re: a (har-rumpf; did I spell that right?)

    Glad you pointed out that such tidbits are not “rules.” I usually call them tips, and often give a disclaimer that one should listen and then decide for oneself.

    And Sumo, as a writer-cat, tends to be pompously opinionated, of course.

    I continue to feel that ellipses are over-used. I like ’em myself, but it’s just a caution about over-reliance.

    Thanks, John!

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