Month: July 2011 Page 2 of 3

Things You Don’t Want But Have to Take

Now on Sale at Smashwords, B&N, Amazon, and OmniLit.

Feed your fear of snail mail by using coupon code SC54Q at Smashwords…

Things You Don’t Want But Have to Take

by DeAnna Knippling

She hid from the thing for years, but it found her and came to her in a box with no real return address and her own handwriting on the label.  She knew what would happen if she tried to fight the cold thing with its claws in her neck.  Her only hope was to hide it from her husband…

When it’s time, you know.

I opened my front door.  The deliveryman, a guy of about twenty with sun-streaked hair and the musculature of a young god, had his fist up in the air; either he was going to hit me, or he was just about to knock.

“Hey, Joe,” I said.  I plucked the signature pad out of his other hand before he could say boo and signed for the package.  “Do you want some chocolate chip cookies?” I asked.  “I made them last night.”  In fact, I’d had such a bad nightmare last night (about the box) that I hadn’t been able to go back to sleep.  I know, cookies, right?  But cookies are wholesome.  And they smell good.  I’d eaten about a dozen already.

Joe gaped at me and retrieved the signature pad.  “How do you know my name?”

I pointed at his nametag and walked into the kitchen.  The cookies were still a little bit warm.  “Want some milk?” I yelled into the hallway.

“No thanks,” Joe called back.  “Uh—”

I put the cookies on a paper plate and wrapped it with plastic wrap.  “You sure?”

No answer.  I brought them back out.  Joe had picked up the package and was staring at it.  He looked like he was about to vomit.  Probably from the smell emanating from the box.

You know, Joe reminded me of an old boyfriend I had, who was always trying to keep me out of trouble.  Hadn’t worked.  Joe looked up at me, and I knew he was going to try to run off with that box.

I hate it when people try to be noble.

“Trade you,” I said.

Joe hesitated.  “I—”

Damn it.

“I know,” I said.  “It smells.  It’s some really stinky cheese.”

“It isn’t cheese, ma’am.  Let me get rid of it.  Nobody needs to know.”

I hate it when people call me ma’am.  But I’m married to a company man and stay home all day.  I wear color-coordinated pants and sandals and get matching manicures.  So I guess I can’t complain.  It’s what I’ve made myself look like, after all.  Protective coloration.

Something heavy in the box shifted across the bottom, rattling the packing peanuts.





Indypub: Priorities, priorities, priorities.

Kris and Dean have good articles up on priorities recently…

Kris:  On Popcorn Kittens.

Dean:  Priorities in this Brave New World.

What is the #1 thing that an indie writer should do?  WRITE.

What have I been putting last on my list for the last two weeks?  WRITING.

I have a stack of publishing things to do, from putting up the new Haunted Empire cover (with the help of Jeremy Martinson of Ponies Studios) (I know, I know–change the swirly font!), to doing a new print galley of Chance Damnation so I can get the POD up, to getting the first Exotics book out, to a dozen other behind-the-scenes things that can get more of my books read, to the VERY IMPORTANT WFH stuff I need to do to keep body and soul together while I wait for the indy stuff to take off…




I am so far behind on the writing schedule I made up this April that it’s saaad.  I’m behind one whole novel at this point, and typing up a second (a NaNo book that I wrote longhand, nevermind).  AND a new party game to write.

Where did the freaking time go?

Lost in the learning curve, that’s what.  And pay work.  And…to be honest, staying connected.

But:  I should be done with the first draft of this novel, YOUR SOUFFLE MUST DIE, today.  Today.  Unfortunately, lots of editing to do on it (for me, that is), because I got sick of looking things up toward the end, and it’s a mystery novel, so it has to run like clockwork.  And recipe testing!  That should be fun…but also not writing.

Next up, Exotics #4.  I have to bump it up in the writing queue, because it’s based on Ray, and I want to catch her at the same moments, tracking how she seems to understand the world, the things she’s concerned about.  And #4 is a summer-vacation book.




I need to have one of these mental-reminder-of-priorities sessions about once a month, I think.

The Haunted Empire cover.  Swirly text needs to be changed.

How to Edit Your Own Ebooks, Part 6: Objectivity and Fidelity to Grammar

I should have written this earlier, but sometimes you don’t always know what you need to write before you write it…

So-Called Objectivity

Looking through what other editors look for when editing…I’m going to be leaving out a lot of things that a “real” editor would check for, like awkward dialogue, using too much backstory, and character development.  Those are things that your writer brain should be taking care of, not your editor brain–if you don’t know how to develop a character, then maybe your work isn’t ready to publish.  Handing those decisions over to an editor…no.  I know that people do it all the time, but those are the decisions that the writer has to make, if their work is going to have integrity.  Not the editor.

If your early readers are pointing out issues consistently, you may want to consider addressing them.  But once you’re past that stage, your editor brain is just going to have to trust the writer brain on those things.  Otherwise, your writer brain is never going to develop a mastery of them.  There’s always the next story.

One of the things that you, as an independent writer, should be taking advantage of is letting your readers decide how good you are.  An editor is a reader, and a highly-trained one, but an editor is only one reader, and unless that editor is the perfect reader for that particular work, their opinion on larger questions should be suspect.  One person’s “This is crap!” is another person’s “It changed my life.”  The job of the editor should be to allow the writer to shine, not to shunt the writer into the editor’s happy place.

As the writer, you don’t have to deal with the editor’s brainwashing as to what is “good” or “bad.”  In some ways, it’s better to edit your own stuff.  You may not have the objectivity to do a great job, but you don’t have to deal with someone else being subjective about your work and declaring their opinion to be objective (and better than yours, the writer’s).  You may not make your work perfect, but you won’t end up making it someone else’s work.

Is It Grammatical?

Before I get into the nitty-gritty of things that I check for, grammatically, I want to say a bit about when to follow standard usage.

If it sticks out like a sore thumb, change it.

If it works, leave it.

Any grammatical rule can be broken, in service of story.

So why would you want to stick to “correct grammar,” if it’s okay to break rules?

Grammar isn’t a set of mathematical truths, absolutely right or absolutely wrong.  So what is it?  It’s a consensus of the best ways to communicate meaning, currently.  Grammar contains words; without grammar, words cannot mean more than just themselves; they have no context.




Is the fish inside the box?  Outside?  Is the fish alone?  Is the box alone?  Is the person writing the words alone with a fish in the box?  Is the fish for supper?

Fish! is box insi9de.  AlonE the fish.  Is, aa, is.  Bo–x person the fish.  For is alo”ne a txxxe.

Grammar is how we agree that groups of words mean something.  Grammar is the set of rules for the game called language.  However, the meaning is more important than the grammar.  Just as people can agree to house rules on a card game, if a writer sets up (and uses consistently) a pattern of rules in a work, the audience can agree that this is a special case in which the usual rules can be broken, as long as they aren’t broken so annoyingly as to hinder meaning or become a distracting pattern (like usin’ too many apostrophes to show that g is bein’ dropped, don’t you know?).

You can even break a rule inconsistently, if it aids meaning (Suddenly.  Complete Sentences.  Vanished.  As she ran.  Faster).

Two guidelines:

  1. If you’re going to break a rule, break it consistently, most of the time.
  2. If you’re going to break a rule, break it for a reason; laziness indicates a lack of concern with meaning, and readers will pick up on that.

Grammar is changing and evolving all the time.  As much as people like to preserve the illusion that grammar is either right or wrong, it’s not.  Grammar is an agreement that we use to communicate meaning as accurately as possible, not a science.  For example, we’re in the middle of shifting from using “he/him/his” to indicate “either gender” and using “they/them/their.”  You’ll see he; you’ll see he or she; you’ll see they; you’ll even see the rare it.  But I think they is winning.  Some people don’t like it one bit–but he or she takes too long, he is presumptious; it is insulting.

Is using they wrong?

It was, back when it was okay to say that he was the same as any given person.

Society is changing; it is no longer okay to mean that.

A grammatical rule that hinders meaning will change, just as the definitions of words change to reflect their meaning.  It’s not a question of right or wrong, but whether the rules serve the meaning.  If the rules no longer serve the meaning, the rules will change, even if the rulekeepers of the world are the last ones to know.




Society of Secret Cats Review…

“Lewis Carroll does Inception. Lots of fun dreams-within-dreams stuff that’s full of more than enchantment than frightening suspense. And a must for cat lovers.” – Fiero Publishing/Terry Hayman.

I think I’m going to use that first line as a blurb….


Society of Secret Cats Review…

“Lewis Carroll does Inception. Lots of fun dreams-within-dreams stuff that’s full of more than enchantment than frightening suspense. And a must for cat lovers.” – Fiero Publishing/Terry Hayman.

I think I’m going to use that first line as a blurb….

Is it possible to be both evil and competent?

I wandered down some weird mental roads while on my various road trips lately.  Wyoming and backroads South Dakota tend to do that to me.

For the last year or so, I’ve been working to lessen the presence of anger in my life, because it makes me uncomfortable.  I feel like there are better things I could be doing, and I realize that just being around an angry, negative person drains the people around you:  whenever I’m around someone like that, I’m embarrassed, both for them and for myself.

When you have a habit, it’s like it revolves around a personal narrative, some story that you have in your head.  “My parents never loved me.”  “I’m not good enough.”  “What if something goes wrong?”  “If only there were a way to make things perfect.”  “I have to make sure everyone gets along.”  “They’d be lost without me.”  “People only like me when I’m good.”  “I’m too fat.”  “I’m the life of the party.”

These personal narratives keep repeating over and over in our heads, I think, and control a great deal more of our actions (especially our habits) than we realize most of the time.  We define ourselves; then, whether or not our definitions are accurate, we stick by them.  We brainwash ourselves.

Why?  Probably because autopilot is efficient.  Thinking about things all the time is very draining.  Asking question after question, feeling like you’re walking on eggshells all the time…doubt is draining.

However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t other options, between being brainwashed and not knowing which leg of our pants to put on first.  That’s beside the point at the moment, though.

One of the personal narratives that goes along with anger is:  “It’s not my fault.”

So, if someone cuts you off in traffic, if you’re stuck in a jam, if your car breaks down:  “It’s not my fault.”  Other people are bad drivers who won’t get out of the way, and crap always happens to you.  Road rage is what happens when other people get angry; it’s perfectly reasonable when it’s you (or me, really).

I have a hard time keeping my temper in the car.  I’m not the best driver at the best of times, and I have tunnel vision when I’m angry, which just makes me worse.  I’m tense, I drive jerkily, I slam on the brakes.

It turns out, that truly competent drivers do not handle the same situations the way an angry driver does.  Competent drivers handle bad drivers with ease.  Competent drivers plan for traffic, and don’t get stuck in it unnecessarily, and when it’s necessary, they handle it calmly.  Competent drivers maintain their cars.  When road rage happens, it’s not because of them; they are calmly changing lanes and getting away from the screaming rage monkeys.  Being safe.

Personally, whenever I’m angry or snippy or frustrated or sneering, I have to stop and think, “Why am I not handling this situation like a competent person?”

Okay, to loop around to the title of this post, using Star Wars:

“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

So, here’s my thought.

The dark side comes out of incompetence.  Indirectly.  People going, “Why won’t things be the way I want them to be?” and instead of finding a long-term, sustainable way to make the changes they want to see in the world, they go after them with a sledgehammer.  Instead of acknowledging that other people truly exist, have their own goals, desires, and physical existence in the world (“Why the hell are all these cars out here?”), treating them as though they exist to make life easier or harder for you (me).  Define other people as stupid, weak, useless–and then it’s okay to take that sledgehammer to them.

Every time you get angry, frustrated, or feel superior to someone, it’s because you’re not competent enough to deal with them as human beings.  Your lack, not theirs.

Competent drivers take incompetent drivers into account.

–That’s the moral of the story, all stories.  Be good, because it means you’re competent at dealing with the world around you in a long-term way.  Evil, after you strip off all the religious and moral trappings, is just another word for foolish.  “Good” is whatever the author or teller determines it to be, of course, and we all disagree about that, because human beings just aren’t smart enough to forsee unintended outcomes.  Russian fairy tales worship tricksters.  Romance writers worship people who follow their hearts.  Grammarians worship people who don’t fuck with apostrophe’s.

But “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is a very long-term view.  So is “turn the other cheek.”  And the opposite of anger.


Indypub: Bookstores and Bookstores

Is your local indy bookstore a good one or not?

How do you know?

I went to two bookstores over the weekend, while I was on the road, that ended up clarifying this for me.  I’ve seen the same types of things at other bookstores, both bad and good, but this trip solidified things for me.

The first was Old Firehouse Books in Fort Collins.  This was an excellent bookstore:  while a lot of old chestnuts were on the shelves, I found myself picking up books that I’d never heard of and saying to myself, “You can’t get them all.”  A lot of the shelf space was dedicated to books that were facing out.  There were shelves and shelves of recommended reading, for each shelf category.  There was an area for writers to give readings, do signings, etc. The atmosphere was like that of a coffee shop or a small-town library.

The second shall remain nameless; there are a thousand like it.  The books were shoved so tightly on the shelves that I couldn’t get them out, in places.  The books that were on the end caps didn’t look particularly interesting.  The shelves were cheap, rickety, and old.  The books toward the front were sale books ($2 hardcovers), lots of regional interest books, and thrillers that looked familiar even to me, who doesn’t really read them.  No recommended reads; the feeling was, “Get as many books in here as you can, as cheaply as you can.”

Now, I bought books from both, but I won’t be going back to the second bookstore.  I picked up a book on mushroom cookery there–something that I already knew I wanted.  I got a headache from the lighting and sneezed a lot.

I found lots of books that I didn’t know I wanted at Old Firehouse Books.  I felt comfortable and relaxed doing so.

My factors, in descending order of importance:

1) Discovery of new, interesting books.

2) Comfortable atmosphere.

3) Sense of community.

More books did not seem to be a factor.  One of the excellent bookstores I visited, Wild Burro Bookstore, had a tiny selection.  But I had to put dozens upon dozens of books back.  And I talked to the owner for an hour 🙂

Is this reproduceable in online bookstores?  Are there good online bookstores that weed out uninteresting, run-of-the-mill books, saving me the necessity of going numb looking for new stuff or constantly collecting recommendations?

Chance Damnation: A Tale of the Weird West

Now at Smashwords, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and OmniLit.

This weekend, follow the Jennings brothers into Hell…using Smashwords code YK23B.

Chance Damnation

A Tale of the Weird West

by DeAnna Knippling

One little girl.  Buffalo-demons stampede out of the earth to steal one little half-blood girl, and everything changes.  Aloysius’s little brother Jerome goes missing with her–two inseparable kids whose friendship is damned from the beginning–as demons replace the newly dead.

A priest with a tainted Bible.  A brother with a taste for blood and demon flesh.   A fool with a passion for the machinery of Hell.  Only Aloysius and his brothers can see the transformation–and there’s not a damned thing they can do about it.  Then Jerome returns:  he has found a way down into the demons’ Hell, where they twist the little girl’s tortured dreams into a paradise of their own, a place to escape the demons who, in turn, haunt them.

Because this is a novel, I’m putting up the first chapter…

Chapter 1

Buffalo County, South Dakota, 1960


Jerome stared up at Celeste Marie on the top of the pile of dirt outside the church in Gray Hill. She was standing with her hand shading her eyes from the sun, and the wind was blowing her shining black hair. They were both just kids—fifth graders—but someday, he was going to marry her, and there would be problems.

“Look,” she said.

“At what?”

“Over there.” She pointed at something on the other side of the hill.

Jerome climbed to the top of the hill beside her. His feet sank into the loose dirt, dried to a crust on top with wet clay just underneath. They were running water from the new well to the church, and there were trenches and pits in the ground all over the place.

Jerome shaded his eyes and squinted, but it was no good. He’d left his hat inside the church, and he couldn’t go after it or his father or somebody would remember it was time to go home and sit at the long table for dinner and say “please” and “thank you” and “excuse me” and “may I go now?” Yet his blue eyes were no good in the sun.

“What is it?” he asked.

“A demon.” She stood on tiptoe, grabbed his arm.

“There’s no such thing as demons. It’s a bull.”

“It’s not a bull. Too many horns. Oh!” The dirt shifted from underneath her, and she slid down the hill. She tried to grab his arm but lost hold.

The dirt shifted under Jerome, too, and he tried to both stop himself from falling and grab Celeste Marie at the same time. All of a sudden, he knew they were in danger. It wasn’t a question of looking back later and wondering if he had known; he knew.

“Run!” he shouted.

The dirt shifted again and he went down on hands and knees, sliding to the bottom. He pushed backward from the dirt hill and got to his feet. The ditch where the pipes were going to be buried was between him and Celeste Marie.

Celeste was standing up again and staring into space. “Look at them run!”

That damned girl. He carefully checked the ground, then jumped over the ditch and pulled her by the back of her shirt. “Come on, Celeste Marie.”

The dirt hill was starting to fall down like a milkshake being sucked up from underneath. Jerome pulled Celeste Marie away from the hill, toward the cemetery. Not that the cemetery was important; that’s just where the one safe direction was, for the moment.

He didn’t run, and he didn’t do any more shouting. He led Celeste Marie among the graves to the big statue of Jesus kneeling. They’d be safer back there, out of sight.

“We have to go back,” Celeste Marie said.

“What for?”

“We have to get in the back of Peggy’s pickup truck and have her drive us out of here before the demons check the graveyard.”

Jerome sighed—she couldn’t have said something two minutes ago?—and led her back toward the church’s gravel parking lot, stopping behind his sister Peggy’s pickup truck so they couldn’t be seen. He peeked through the dirty window toward the church. The hill was a hole in the ground now. Jerome shaded his eyes and saw something moving underneath.

From the front of the church, Mr. Blackthorn hollered, “Celeste Marie!”

Celeste Marie jerked like she’d just got woken up and started to take a breath. Jerome slapped a hand over her mouth.

From the dirt hole, something grunted.

Jerome murmured in her ear, “I ain’t ready to get killed yet, are you?”

Celeste Marie shook her head.

“Let’s pretend we didn’t hear your dad.”

Celeste Marie grinned around his hand. Her sweat smelled like bread, and he could feel her big front teeth under his fingers. He let her go.

“Okay,” she said. “But only for a little while. Until the demons are gone. They’re right over there.” She stepped out from behind the truck to point into the wheat field with her brown stick arm.

Jerome jerked her back behind the pickup truck. “You got to be better at hiding than that.”

Celeste Marie giggled as Jerome peeked from behind the back of the truck. Sure enough, the field was scattered with black dots running toward them, whatever they were.

Jerome coughed as an evil smell got up his nose and stung his eyes. Something grunted behind him. When he turned around to see what it was, he saw that he was face-to-face with something big, black, and ugly. Celeste Marie stared up at it as it reached for her.

Jerome dragged Celeste Marie out of the way and around the truck. Big Ugly was naked and hairy, with four curling horns and a big snout, and he walked on two legs. He followed them for a second, then doubled back around with his hands outspread, waiting to see which way they would go.

Jerome pushed Celeste Marie into the side of the pickup truck, grabbed her legs, and lifted her up. She bent at the waist and toppled into the truck, protesting: “This is a terrible place to hide.”

Jerome put his boot on the tire and boosted himself up behind her while the black thing circled toward them. There was a tarp in the back of the truck, held down with the cans of green paint and linseed oil they were using to paint the roof. Jerome pulled the tarp over Celeste Marie, in case it happened to do any good, picked up a gallon can of linseed oil, and swung it, hard.

If it hadn’t hit the demon, it would have smashed the back window of Peggy’s pickup truck, and then he would have been in trouble. But the full can hit the demon with a thump and bounced back. Jerome let the weight of the can carry it over his shoulder; then he swung the can over his head. The thing bellowed as the can cracked one of his horns.

“Celeste Marie!” Mr. Blackthorn shouted again. He sounded cross and impatient. He probably wanted her to go inside to help dust the pews or clean fingerprints off the windows or something.

“Coming!” Celeste Marie shouted. She struggled under the tarp and pushed it back.

Big Ugly was touching his horn and shaking his giant, shaggy head. He started to grab for Jerome, but Jerome swung the can again, and it knocked the demon’s muscled, hairy arm aside. Big Ugly growled and reached for him again.

More time.

Celeste Marie screamed. Her tiny body threw the heavy tarp out of the pickup truck and into Big Ugly’s face; then she pummeled the thing with the meat of her fists. “Leave him alone!”

Jerome would have laughed at how angry she sounded and how futile it was for her weak arms to pound at the demon if the demon hadn’t been big enough to pull her out of the truck bed and throw her to the moon.

“Celeste? Celeste Marie!” Mr. Blackthorn’s shouting sounded far, far away. Jerome shoved Celeste Marie out of the way.

The demon roared and the smell got worse; it was as bad as rotten Christmas oranges in July or Easter eggs in August.

Celeste said, “So that’s how you do it.” Jerome looked down; she had one of the cans of paint open and waiting. As far as he could tell, she’d used her bare hands to open it with. She picked up the can and held it carefully by the handle.

The moment Big Ugly stripped off the tarp, she hurled green paint into his eyes. The paint splattered the demon and splashed back over their church clothes.

“Hah!” Celeste Marie said. Then she shrieked as another one of the demons caught her from behind, right around her waist.

Big Ugly bellowed as Jerome leapt from the truck bed toward the second demon. He missed, as he knew he would, and landed on his knees. He got up and ran after the thing, which was running with Celeste Marie toward the dirt hole.

Jerome had a metal fence post in his hands; he didn’t know where he’d got it from, probably from the back of the truck. His arms didn’t want to move right, it was so heavy. He swung and missed. He swung again and hit the demon, right in the back, but the demon didn’t stop. The post was too heavy to swing again, so he charged with it, slamming it hard into the demon’s back, right at the spine.

The demon stumbled, dropping Celeste Marie and leaping over her, then skidding into the ground. Jerome followed and hit him again with the post, at the bottom of his neck this time. The post slid along its neck and got stuck in the crack between the top of his neck and the bottom of his head.

The demon went down on its knees. Celeste Marie kicked the demon with her sandals, and Jerome jerked the post out and swung hard, hitting the demon in the back of the head.

The metal post anchor got stuck in the thing’s head, and Jerome wasn’t strong enough to jerk it out this time. He screamed with the need to hurry.

Then someone was pulling him backward. He kicked and twisted but couldn’t escape. The next thing he knew, he was inside his sister Peggy’s truck with Peggy on one side and Celeste Marie on the other. He almost slid off the seat into the dashboard as the truck whirled out of the parking lot.

Celeste Marie stared at him up and down, hanging onto his arms with her tiny hands. “You’re green.”

Jerome looked around. Peggy was driving them down the gravel road away from church, which was surrounded by demons.

There was smoke.

The Stephenson Conclusion

Any sufficiently developed idea related to information theory that a writer may have for a story will lead to the Stephenson Conclusion, that is, “Neal Stephenson already wrote it.”

I’m reading The Information by James Gleick.  It does not list Stephenson in the index, despite being so far a lengthy, step-by-step rehash of his books.  So I guess that works for nonfiction as well.

How to Edit Your Ebooks, Part 5: Tense and Verb Choice

The saga continues…the theme of the day seems to be, “Point it out but don’t necessarily edit it to death.”


I’m not going to go into the fine art of selecting tenses much here; my goal is not to be a book on perfecting your style and grammar, but how to edit.  However, I will go into a few points.

What tense to use.

Most works of fiction are going to be in past tense.  He went; she dreamed; it flew; they discombobulated.

Now, in the normal course of speaking in past tense, some things are going to be in the past, relative to the main action of the story.

In dialogue, you should generally use past tense to indicate things that happened in the story’s past. “She went to the market,” he said.

In non-dialogue, you should start off using past perfect tense.  She had gone to the market to buy groceries, but she’d been stopped on the street by the cops, who weren’t looking for her but thought she might know where he’d gone. However, this can be really repetitive, so after throwing a few “hads” in to show that the reader has moved further back in time,  you can switch off to past tense.

Beware using any present or future tenses in non-dialogue, if the main body of the work is in past tense.  It usually means you’re writing so intensely that you forgot your characters were a) in the past and b) not you.  You might want to leave those tense shifts, if you feel they add to the story and won’t confuse your readers, but otherwise ax them.

This is not to say that you can’t or shouldn’t write a story in present or future tense.  If you’re writing in present tense, then use the past tense for actions that happened in the past; if you’re writing in the future tense (which is hard to sustain without getting annoying but can be done), I would advise using past perfect to indicate past actions:

He will go to the rocket and open the door.  Ten years ago, he had been too cowardly to stay on the same continent when the rocket took off.  But tomorrow he will go.

In my opinion, use of the future tense is so weird to most people that if you slip into the past tense, people will assume that the past tense is the main tense of the story and the future tense is just hypothetical.  I suggest using the past perfect to keep people from doing that.  But do what works for you–just do it consistently.

Simpler verb tenses

In general, of all possible verb tenses, use the simplest available.  Don’t use have/had (perfect) or was ____-ing (progressive) tenses unless you really need them, for example, to show that something that happened in a past tense story happened before the main action of the story (perfect tense) or that the characters were doing something when they were interrupted (progressive tense).

One, tenses are there to indicate meaning, and you shouldn’t use a specific tense if you don’t mean what that tense means.

Two, reading all those wases and hads and -ings gets repetitive and old.

Verb Choice

Weak verbs

A lot of people have trouble with using too many of the same verb, usually a weak* or overused verb:

  • be
  • go
  • look
  • seem
  • try
  • do
  • think
  • tell
  • show
  • put
  • get
  • see
  • begin
  • start
  • give
  • use
  • want
  • feel
  • have

You may want to keep a list of verbs that you overuse and add to it as new ones pop up.  They probably will.

The most difficult of these words to eradicate or at least reduce my usage of, at least for my brain, is be.

I suggest the place to get rid of be and other weak verbs is in the content editing phase that your writer brain has to do before sending the work over to the editor brain.  However, your writer brain may be completely blind to be verbs.  Just writing this paragraph is giving me self-conscious fits, to be honest, but I’ll just plow ahead and edit this later, which is exactly what your writer brain may have to do with your work:  send it over to the editor brain and hope for the best.

If so, have your editor brain scan for weak verbs (you may want to do a search for the various be tenses, because it’s hard to catch them; your brain may just elide over them).  Highlight them, insert comments–whatever your system is for marking something for your writer brain to look at later.  After you’re done, send the document back over to your writer brain and have it deal with the cases individually.

Your writer brain (or your writer, if you’re editing someone else’s work) will not like this, but having the editor brain pick verbs is a mistake.  In fact, it may be better for your editor brain to do the highlighting, send it over to the writer brain, and then let both sides of your brain leave it alone.  You may end up doing more damage to your work than it’s worth, getting rid of those weak verbs.  But have the editor brain review for those verbs anyway–to make the writer brain self-conscious enough about it that you’ll use fewer of them on the next story.


You may have heard of the “rule” that you shouldn’t use a lot of adverbs in your writing.  Using too many adverbs is a symptom of a different problem rather than a problem in itself:  there’s nothing wrong with using adverbs.  There’s just not enough right with them.

One, use of adverbs often coincides with use of weak verbs.

Two, use of adverbs gets repetitive.  And the more repetitively you use anything in language, the less it means.  If you’ve ever done the trick where you repeat a word until it becomes meaningless (e.g., saying “pizza” literally 500 times), you know the feeling.  Too many adverbs are mentally numbing; the brain sees the -ly pattern so often that it numbs out.  (There are non-ly adverbs; interestingly, people don’t have problems with them unless you start using that specific adverb too often [e.g., often].)

But, again, you may want to just point them out with your editor brain and hope your writer brain does better next time.

Passive voice

Another “rule” is that you shouldn’t use passive voice.  He was given the big guns.

There are good reasons for that:

You’re using a lot of was/has constructions, which gets annoying.

You’re concealing information.  Who gave him the big guns, eh?  Your readers want to know.

However, sometimes you will use passive voice.  You want to conceal information; your characters don’t know the information; your characters or narrator would naturally, habitually use the passive voice (e.g., anybody who’s ever worked for the government).  Or you just want to break things up.

If you have a good reason for using passive voice, go for it.

If you don’t, weed it out:  don’t use passive voice if it doesn’t mean anything.  Words mean things; passive voice means something; if you’re a writer, you can break “rules” like this, if you mean it.

You will have the same concerns going on here as you do with editing verbs in general, so you may want to point out unnecessary instances of passive voice and then leave them alone, using your writer brain to write the next story with fewer instances rather than screwing around overmuch with your current story.

*A “weak verb” is also a technical term that indicates how a verb is conjugated; I mean here verbs that are so overused as to be relatively meaningless.

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