Nits Worth Picking
A Session with Earl Javorsky
Long before I had the good fortune to land a publishing deal, I realized that I was one of those self-appointed guardians of the English language—you’ve got it, the grammar police—and that I could put it to use professionally. Now, I’m pretty loose in my everyday use of language, but if a news anchor can’t get the subjunctive right, I hear it like a sour note in a church choir. There, that sentence contains an ambiguity, and I’m not gonna fix it.
Oddly, I backdoored my way into getting published. I had been working as a proofreader/editor on a freelance basis, with clients ranging from scientific journals to mining companies, from fiction writers to publishers of educational material. When I first submitted my novel Down Solo to Lou at The Story Plant, I promised to deliver a clean manuscript, stating that I had been working as a proofreader. He politely turned me down as a writer, saying he only accepted agented work, but took me on as a proofreader and eventually as a copyeditor.
In the process of reading (one of my favorite things to do) for money (really?), I have encountered some fine novels by terrific writers, and my job has been to comb through and pick out the few sour notes that had survived the scrutiny of the author, the editor, and—if I was only proofing—the copyeditor. Sometimes those notes are whoppers, and I’ve kept a log of them in anticipation of using them at some point for their instructional value. I’ve changed them enough that they shouldn’t be recognizable, and I hope no writer who sees his or her cherished sentence, altered though it might be, is offended by my appropriation of their material.
Here are some of what we might call crimes against writing (and God knows I’ve committed my share):
Pulling out a cigarette, he lit it with an old flip-top lighter. Backing into a convenient parking spot, he turned off the engine and took a drag. Glancing at the marquee of the theater two doors down, he grinned.
This writer had a great story, well-drawn characters, and a knack for dialogue, but also had a fondness for this particular way of building a sentence. Participial phrases are great once in a while, but it’s wise to avoid the repetition of any one construction. I notice and draw attention to them if they occur more than once every three or four paragraphs. The fix is easy (but just a suggestion):
He pulled out a cigarette and lit it with an old flip-top lighter. Backing into a convenient parking spot, he turned off the engine and took a drag. As he glanced up at the marquee of the theater two doors down, he grinned.
There was an older woman around seventy years old standing in the corner of the room.
Okay, this was clearly a case of the writer’s first-draft material slipping through all the filters until it got to me. When a story is pouring out of us, we’re not going to be meticulous about each sentence as we go along—that’s going to interrupt the flow. But we should be careful during revision about catching this sort of thing. In this case, choose which of the following serves your purpose best:
There was an older woman standing in the corner of the room, or There was a woman around seventy years old standing in the corner of the room.
“What’s going on?” Sam asked with his characteristically vociferous voice.
Again, the redundancy probably came in the rush to draw the scene. Except in this case it’s a double redundancy: not only is “asked . . . with his voice” problematic, so is “vociferous voice.” The fix? Well, if you really wanted to make the point, you could say, “What’s going on?” Sam asked vociferously,” but the fact is, vociferously is not a very elegant adverb in this context, and adverbs should be used sparingly at best. Conclusion? Delete it. If you must, give Sam a gesture to indicated vociferousness.
“Hey, Fran,” Leanne said, much more reserved than she was the previous night.
Here’s a case of asking simple past tense to do more work than it’s capable of—being in two places at once. Past perfect is needed here, giving us “Hey, Fran,” Leanne said, much more reserved than she had been the previous night.
“You don’t hear a whopper like that too often,” Art laughed.
A lot of people would say it’s pedantic to pick on this, but I maintain that laugh is an inappropriate dialogue tag. We could ask, “To whom is he laughing?” How about this instead: “You don’t hear a whopper like that too often,” Art said, laughing.
And now, right then, it was happening right in front of her.
Ok, woops. Someone was in a hurry to write. The author forgot his or her place in time, now, right then, in the middle of a sentence. If you’re a new writer looking for an agent, too many of these on a page will diminish your chances of getting read. Best to use either and now or and then, but not both. If it’s really imperative to emphasize the immediacy, you could try And now, in this very moment, it was happening right in front of her. Or this: And then, at that very moment . . .
Anger bubbled under his veins.
This is one of those tiny things that make me stop; it takes me out of a story’s narrative momentum. I try to visualize bubbling under my veins and things get confusing. Things can, however, bubble in my veins.
When he saw the Mercedes in the garage, there was a sigh of great relief.
This choice of passive voice might work if the sentence were When they saw the Mercedes in the garage, there was a collective sigh of great relief, but it doesn’t work at all as it is. The fix: When he saw the Mercedes in the garage, he sighed in relief.
She served dessert on antique china plates with a raised floral edging she had inherited from her aunt.
Here’s another case of it being obvious what the author intended, but my ear tugs me toward wondering about inherited floral edging. Maybe it’s just my ear that plays these tricks on me; I don’t know. It’s hard to fix by rephrasing, so I suggest breaking it into two sentences: She served dessert on antique china plates with a raised floral edging. She had inherited them from her aunt and kept them for special occasions.
“You’ve got to sand down the banisters before you paint,” he instructed with a terse tone.
This is a neat way to get around using an adverb—something we want to minimize—but is essentially the same. Actually, it’s a bit more awkward than just saying he instructed tersely.
Less awkward would be he instructed, his tone terse. Better yet, as with all temptations to get descriptive about a speaker’s delivery, leave it to the reader to interpret from context what the speaker’s tone or attitude is. If you want to amplify, use a separate sentence, as in the following: “You’ve got to sand down the banisters before you paint,” he said. Billy found his dad’s terse instruction irritating.
Instead of being able to roll a bowling ball down the aisles without hitting anyone, today the store was teeming with customers.
This is an example of a dangling modifier. As constructed, it indicates that the store was unable to roll a ball down its aisle without hitting anyone. Reconstruct: Normally you could roll a ball down the aisles without hitting anyone, but today the store was teeming with customers.
The last thing Fred wanted were the police knocking on his door.
Watch out for verb agreement. Thing is singular, so were should be was, no matter how many police might come knocking.
One writer I worked with had a political thriller with multiple points of view. Not only did he switch POV without warning or indication, he also had long first-person passages in italics, indicating interior monologues that he used for exposition. This can work (not the POV switching; we fixed that separately) if used sparingly, but this particular book was almost twenty percent italics. When I pointed it out, the author stood his ground, saying he had seen it in popular fiction and that it was stylistically acceptable. It wasn’t until I rewrote some of the passages for him in third-person (consistent with the main work) that he saw that close third-person can be intimate and reflect thoughts, feelings, and observations that he thought were only possible in first person.
One of the best writers I know churns out a ton of clunky sentences, isn’t that great at punctuation, and doesn’t give much of a crap about a lot of the minutiae that I pick on. He’s so good with character development, dialogue, plot movement, and creating scenes that he can get away with it and leave others to tidy up for him. The rest of us should probably pay closer attention. Just as I am grateful to Lou Aronica for his top-level editing of my book, Nora Tamada for her copyediting, and Sue Rasmussen for proofreading, I am equally gratified to be the part of the team that puts the final polish on any writer’s work.
And one more thing. I know this is really nitpicky, but in the following two sentences—On Monday, he was supposed to go to court and On Tuesday he was late because he lost his keys—the comma is entirely optional. Use it or don’t, but stay consistent unless clarity is promoted by making an exception. Practically no one will notice, but stuff like that makes people like me question our sanity.
About the Author…
Dan Fante, author of Point Doom, calls Earl Javorsky “the real deal,” and it’s easy to tell why as soon as you open an Earl Javorsky book. The voice is crisp, the characters are distinctive, and the story draws you in instantly. We think Earl is one of the most distinctive new suspense writers to come around in some time. http://www.earljavorsky.com