Tag Archives: John Hartness

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Crutch Words — Finding Them and Limiting Them

Last week, John Hartness, my good friend and the owner and editor at Falstaff Books, posted on Facebook about something he was seeing while editing manuscripts. Many of his writers were starting too many lines of dialogue with, “So…” As John said in the post, “We do this in real life, and it does sounds realistic, but most of us (myself 100% included) are using it too often, and it doesn’t work as well on the page as it does in real live conversation.”

What I found especially interesting about John’s post was the response to it. Writer after writer (including me) confessed to relying on all sorts of repeating words and phrases — what we in the industry call “crutch words.”

I use “So…” a bit, though not that much. On the other hand, lately my editors and I have noticed that I start way too many lines of dialogue with “Well…” As with “So…” it is something lots of us do in actual conversations, but on the page it becomes intrusive and repetitive.

I have lots of other crutch words, too, but honestly I’m reluctant to share them with you, because I don’t want you looking for them while reading my books and stories. Once you start doing this, it can totally ruin a work of fiction for you.

Suffice it to say, all of us have verbal tics that show up in our prose — words we overuse, approaches to dialogue that occur again and again, mannerisms we give to our characters that repeat themselves throughout our stories. Sometimes they are the result of habit. I know that in my case they often are a product of laziness — I need a gesture or a spoken word, and rather than pausing to come up with something different and unexpected, I throw in a standby. Moreover, even as we work to eliminate some crutches from our writing vocabularies, new ones creep in. (For me, “Well…” didn’t used to be a problem, and I’m not entirely sure when it showed up.)

So how do we deal with this issue?

First, understand that this doesn’t make you a bad writer. All writers from beginners to seasoned professionals grapple with crutch words. Don’t let yours undermine your confidence.

The key, of course, is to identify your wording habits and control them. Beta readers can be enormously helpful in this regard. When you ask people to read your manuscripts, by all means ask them to look for plotting problems, and character inconsistencies, and all the other narrative problems we writers sometimes face. But also ask them to keep an eye out for overused words and phrases. If and when they find some, start a list and keep that list around for future projects.

If you don’t have Beta readers, or don’t want to wait for outside feedback, try reading your books and stories aloud. This is one of those problems that we can gloss over all too easily when reading through a manuscript. But if we read the work out loud, and thus hear the story as well as see it, we are more likely to recognize those annoying repetitions. Again, as we find them, we should add them to our list.

Once we start to develop a bank of overused words, we can use the search function in our word processing software to find all instances of a given word or phrase and look for ways to replace some of the offending passages with something else. Remember, you don’t need to eliminate every “So…” occurrence (or whatever crutch you happen to be looking for at a particular time). The idea is to use the word/phrase in moderation.

How many instances is too many? A good question, and the truth is I don’t have a great answer. I might use as a yardstick one of my completed books, one I believe is well-written, polished, and relatively free of crutch words. If the new book has way more “Well…”s (for instance) than that old one, I assume there’s a problem and I try to fix it. If the numbers in the new book are about the same as, or lower than, the older yardstick, I move on to the next crutch. I will confess that my running list of crutch words/phrases has probably 50 entries. Maybe more. Some I’ve managed to control and eliminate as problems. Others, not so much. And, as I said before, I’m always adding new ones.

Finally, keep in mind that most readers don’t notice our crutches nearly as much as we do, or as a good editor might. Chances are one or two verbal mannerisms are going to sneak by our attempts to limit them and will wind up in the published version of our book. Don’t worry too much about that. Make sure the word is on your list, so you can address the issue in subsequent manuscripts, and then move on.

So, best of luck.

Well, keep writing.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Self-Defining Success

Islevale compositeAs you know at this point, we are in the midst of release week for Time’s Assassin, the third book in my epic fantasy/time travel series, The Islevale Cycle. For today’s writing tip, I am going to address a matter I’ve talked about before in conferences and workshops: defining success and balancing external disappointments with the satisfaction we ought to take in work well done.

To state the obvious, we want all of our books to succeed, to garner great reviews and sell like gangbusters. (And, with that in mind, you can order Time’s Assassin here. You can also get books I and II in the series at a special price. Here’s the link.) With few exceptions, our most recent efforts tend to be the ones we think are the best. That has certainly been the case with my work. Some series are more successful than others, but generally speaking, I have been most proud of whatever book I have completed most recently. The Islevale books are no exception to this. I love, love, love these books. All of them. And I think that Time’s Assassin is the finest concluding volume to a series I have ever written. I had creative goals for the book — things I wanted to accomplish with the narrative — and I feel that I achieved every one of them. I’m deeply proud of that.

Time's Assassin, book III of The Islevale Cycle, by D.B. Jackson (jacket art by Robyne Pomroy)The truth is, I have felt that way about all three volumes of this trilogy. The Islevale books were incredibly difficult to write. I knew going in that writing time travel would be really hard — as one friend told me, “It’ll make your brain explode.” So much can go wrong. We have to examine every plot point from every possible angle to make certain it holds up to logic, and to the simple reality that time travel gives us endless opportunities for do-overs. Put another way, every event in a time travel story is negotiable. Each one can be altered or reversed by the very plot devices on which our stories depend.

I have never struggled with a set of books so much. Part of the problem was, maybe due to the time travel, I could not outline the books. I’m a planner. I outline all my novels. Except these. And, early on, it showed. My wonderful agent, Lucienne Diver, tore apart the first draft of the first book, which I liked very much. And every criticism she had of the book was valid. I wound up cutting 40,000 words from that initial iteration and then writing scenes totaling 60,000 words to make it work. It was a brutal slog. But when I finished that new draft of Time’s Children, I knew I had written the best book of my career.

Time’s Children, by D.B. Jackson © Angry Robot. Art by Jan Weßbecher.I hoped that Time’s Demon, book II, would prove easier to write. It didn’t. This time, I did most of the cutting and adding on my own — I didn’t need anyone to point out most of the early flaws; I saw them for myself. Again, I couldn’t outline the book, but by the time the second volume was done, I had fallen in love with it as well. And so it went with book III, Time’s Assassin.

These books have also had a tangled history. The first book received terrific reviews — a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly, a designation as the Best Fantasy Novel of 2018 from Reviews and Robots, an Audie nomination — and sold well, too. The second book also received great reviews — and one high-profile poor one that stung. More, its release coincided with a turnover in management at Angry Robot, the original publisher. The book got lost in the transition and tanked. Angry Robot’s new editor apologized to me about this, but sales being what they were, she could not pick up the option on book three. Fortunately, John Hartness at Falstaff Books took the book on and made this week’s release possible. I’m grateful to him, and to all the great folks at Falstaff.

TIME'S DEMON, by D.B. Jackson (Art by Jan Weßbecher)I frequently tell beginning writers that they need to self-define success, something which is really hard to do in this business. All too often we writers are forced by the nature of publishing to seek exterior affirmation for our work — reviews, sales, awards if we’re fortunate enough to win them. These are the things the industry values and so, naturally, they are the things we care about as well. The problem with this is, the industry is cruel and capricious. We all know of good, even great, books that go unnoticed and unacknowledged. We all have seen mediocrity rewarded with terrific sales and undeserved attention. And we know that this is true in the world beyond publishing as well. Life is not always fair.

With the books of the Islevale Cycle, I have been left with no choice but to heed my own advice: I have to self-define my success. I can lament that these books deserved a better fate than that which the industry offered, or I can draw satisfaction from what they have meant to me, personally. Because they mean a lot: The series in total was the most ambitious project I’ve taken on, and the final products represent the finest work I have done. Writing these books forced me to stretch as an artist — every book and story I write from here on out will be better because of this series. So, yeah, I wish the second book had sold better. I wish I hadn’t had to deal with the pain of being dropped by the first publisher. And I hope that the release of this third volume will build sales for all three books.

I said at the outset of this post that I LOVE the books. And it’s true. I love the characters, the setting, the magic system, the prose, the emotion, the twists and turns. And I am hopeful that you will love them, too. Not just because I want to sell some books — though, yeah, I do — but because I take pride in the work, and I want others to see what I’ve done. I’m like a little kid showing his latest scribble to everyone who’ll take time to look at it. And I’m okay with that. When we’re kids, self-defining success comes easily. It’s when we’re older, and more aware of the pitfalls of creative careers, that we lose sight.

Thanks, and keep writing.