Saturday, February 08, 2014

Seven Deadly (Writing) Sins!

This weekend’s guest here at Type M is once again my good friend, the redoubtable Cheryl Freedman, ace editor and friend to crime writers everywhere. She has edited and consulted on numerous books with many authors here in Canada, and together with her sister editor Elaine runs, a well-respected and busy editorial service. Cheryl has assisted me for my most recent five novels as “last eyes” before I’ve sent my mss off to the publisher, something that has proven invaluable – and she’s tough to please, an excellent thing in an editor.

She can be contacted at You can find her very extensive bio by clicking HERE. If you’re lucky, she’ll be able to help you. Just ask if she’s got time. Oh, and did I mention she was the heart and soul of Crime Writers of Canada for many years? Then there’s her work as chair of Bloody Words. It you’re interested in attending this great and intimate convention, taking place here in Toronto June 6-8, please visit You can meet Cheryl in person (with or without ferret).


‘Fess up now: How often do you use words in your writing when you’re not quite sure what they mean? How often do you use the wrong homonym or word that sounds very close to the word you want?

I’m not talking here about words like “imply” and “infer”; any grammar/style/usage book will explain the difference between the two (you imply, I infer). I’m talking about mixing up words like “inter” and “intern,” something I once came across in three books from three different publishers. Just look up the word if you’re not absolutely sure about it. And FYI, the only time you can legitimately use “inter” and “intern” interchangeably is when you throw someone into an oubliette.

I’ve been editing crime fiction for some 13 to 14 years and constantly encounter writing mistakes that annoy me. What’s unfortunate is that these mistakes frequently crop up in what would otherwise be an excellent and imaginative story, but in today’s publishing market, they’re enough to turn off an agent or publisher.

Here’s a very brief list of some other things that vex me no end in a manuscript:

Adjectives, piling up of. Don’t. Just don’t. Better to rely on strong nouns and verbs. And if you are going to use an adjective or adverb, make sure it’s not a stupid one. Crime writers aren’t the worst sinners here; read almost any food blog. You’ll find adverbs like “impossibly,” “ridiculously,” and “insanely” littered about like so many discarded potato peels.

Contractions, not using. Go turn on the TV and watch a show. Listen carefully to the dialogue. Or call a friend (IM won’t work here) and pay attention to how the two of you speak. You’re using contractions, aren’t you? Then why aren’t your characters using contractions in their speech? This isn’t to say that you should always use contractions, but you should have a well thought-out reason not to. You may, for instance, have a character who is prissy and precise, and thus would be more than likely to use full words, although in this case, it’s a speech idiosyncrasy that should be unique to that character.

Eyes. Eyes look, glance, stare, glare; they do not wander, ratchet up towards the ceiling, drop to the ground, etc.

Lecturing. You’re not being paid to be a prof, so don’t lecture. Yes, we know you did a lot of research in writing your book, but if you have to convey this information, do it in a natural manner via your characters rather than making an author guest appearance in the story.

Had I (he/she/it/they) but known... Foreshadowing can be a useful literary device, but it should consist of something (a scene, even a sentence) that just hints at what may be coming. You don’t need to hit someone over the head with an anvil like this phrase.

Info dumping. Closely related to lecturing. You may need to know the velocity of a bullet from a Glock; the reader probably doesn’t. And for God’s sake, don’t have A telling B (usually at great length) something that B would obviously already know from personal experience.

Plot devices. C’mon, you know better. Just say no to coincidences, stupid moves on the part of an otherwise intelligent character (no traipsing up to the attic with a candle stub in 2013), an item being conveniently out of place (oh look, a cast iron frying pan in the bedroom; just the thing to bop the killer over the head with). Ask yourself if you’d believe that what you just wrote would happen in the real world.

OK, this is eight sins and I could go on, but as we all know, when it’s time to end a story, let it end. At least for now...


Anonymous said...

Excellent list. When I first shared with a new writing group, one member was upset and told me contractions shouldn't be used. Had to pick my jaw up off the floor, lol.

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