Why? Is it some mysterious bit of wisdom no one has taught you? Probably not, but I may have some suggestions that will help you. Since I’ve been critiquing contests as well as individuals who look for help in polishing their manuscripts, I’ve noticed a few common mistakes writers make that might be preventing them from “sealing the deal.”
In this blog, I’ve listed common mistakes I’ve found, that corrected, may help you achieve your writing goals sooner. Since I made many of these mistakes, I can now recognize them in others’ writings. I hope this blog may help you or at least make you consider if your writing is progressing the way you hope it is. I’m a firm believer that whether published or not, you continue to hone your craft.
(Not in any order:)
1. Using the word “that” or “for a moment” too often
“that”- You’ll be surprised how many times you really don’t need to use this word.
Suggestion: Go to “edit” and “find” all your “thats,” and see how many you really need.
“For a moment” – I was surprised at the number of times I used “for a moment” in my first manuscript. Although it’s about showing passage of time, again, you really don’t need it.
Suggestion: Try to be more creative or don’t use anything. “Briefly” and “suddenly,” are not good substitutes either.
2. Is this scene necessary?
You’ve probably read this before: every scene needs to move the story forward or further character development or add something for the reader. Recently, I’ve read many scenes where I question the writer: What is happening in this scene? Is it two people talking about nothing? When the reader has read a scene, what is she supposed to come away with?
Suggestion: Review your manuscript for wasted scenes that accomplish nothing to your storytelling.
3. Who’s talking- you or your character?
As writers we know the story, and we know what we need to get across to the reader in each scene. In reviewing the scene, are your characters’ dialogue true to their characters?
Suggestion: Think carefully about the words you put in your characters’ mouths.
Make sure they are true to the character.
4. Sentence flow
In examining each paragraph, do your sentences flow together? Are they logical and do they read smoothly?
Suggestion: Have your critique partner or another read your paragraphs JUST for smoothness and review each sentence for clarity and coherency. Anything unclear, ask the writer, what this sentence mean?
5. Using conjunction sentences with “ands” and “buts”
Do you use a lot of conjunctions when writing? Does the first part of the sentence work with the second part? And usually, characters can’t do two actions at the same time. Example: “He walked across the room and sat down.”
Suggestion: Vary sentence structure. Use conjunctions at a minimum. Push yourself as a writer to search for new ways for stronger story-telling.
6. Varying sentence lengths.
You’ve probably heard shorter sentences are better for faster pace, especially when building suspense or writing action scenes. Longer sentences slow the pace and give the reader time for reflexion.
Suggestion: Give your readers a break by varying your sentence lengths. Don’t use all short or long sentences. If you have many long sentences, see if you can break them up for shorter sentences.
7. How do you begin each sentence and paragraph?
Do your sentences begin with many “he’s” and “she’s?” Or the characters’ names?
Suggestion: Skim each page for how you begin each sentence. Do you have too many subjects? Think about how you can change up your sentences for variety.
8. The infamous ITS vs. IT’S.
Many of you already know this, but I’m always surprised when I find “its” used incorrectly. It’s = it is its= possession
Suggestion: “Edit” and “find” all the “its” to make sure you’re using the right one.
9. Create the scene using your senses.
So many scenes I’ve read have dialogue and character action and maybe a word thrown in about moonlight, but little more. Remember to put your reader into the scene.
Suggestion: Example: Your heroine is riding in a bumpy carriage ride. Will your reader feel the bumps of the road or the leather seat or see the rolling landscape outside the carriage window? Is she cold from the drafty carriage or warm from the rug thrown over her legs? Can she smell newly-cut hay or hear the horses’ harnesses jingling or another passenger snoring? Think about developing each scene further.
10. Put all the words you need in, then take most of them out, especially when showing and not telling.
Suggestion: When writing your first draft, use all the words you need to tell the story. Then when revising, take most of them out, which includes many “telling” scenarios. Example: She slapped the whip against her thigh in irritation and frustration. You don’t need “in irritation and frustration” because by her actions we already know how she’s feeling.
OK, I’m now officially off my soapbox. I hope these suggestions might help you and your writing to go the next step.
All the best, Kit Donner
P.S. Please, please, put your punctuation WITHIN the end quotes.
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The sun’s dying scarlet rays washed across the sky after Patience’s second day as Paddock Green’s newest still-room maid. She stretched her weary arms above her head, stiff from polishing the last looking glass with wine spirits, then added whiting for a final shine.
Finished earlier than expected, Patience had helped rub and sift the sugar for cake, although the cook complained that Patience’s cake dough could be used as cannon fodder to shoot at the unsuspecting French enemy. Perhaps next time she could remember to add the yeast, the cook hinted scornfully.
But Patience’s mind was not on baking a better cake. Like Pandora with the key to her box, she wanted to unlock the earl’s secrets in his locked study, no doubt to keep out prying still-room maids.
After she helped Lem cut the cotton tops off the candles and change the lamp oil, Mrs. Knockersmith sent her to bed with a warning to be up earlier than the sun. Patience wearily climbed the stairs, scratching her head through her large mobcap.
Lord Londringham, a subject never very far from her mind. What kind of a man was he? He was certainly guilty of espionage, but murder? She shivered as if ghostly hands had reached out to her from the grave. Biting her lip, she realized resignedly that she would have to get much closer to the earl if she wanted to discover the answers she sought.
Although the hour grew late, Patience decided to take a quick nap before attempting her first foray into spying. She had thought about it all afternoon and planned to eavesdrop on the earl and the captain when they met tonight in the earl’s rooms. With any luck, she could secure evidence to be used against the earl.
Once safely inside her maid’s room in the attic, Patience threw off her mobcap and spectacles, and in relief, unbuttoned the maid’s uniform before pulling on her thin blue lawn nightdress. She unpinned her hair, then combed the thick strands through her fingers, as she massaged away the slight pain from the cap and pins. She promptly curled into a ball and closed her eyes. Just for a few minutes, she promised herself.
An hour later Patience awakened, slowly, then jolted into a sitting position. It all came winging back to her on a cry.
Tonight. The earl's room.
A glance at the clock showed almost half-past eleven. She grabbed a pale blue wrap and slipped quietly out the door, not giving herself pause for failure, and winked three times for luck before hastening towards the stairs.
Patience thought her frantic breathing would awaken the dead. Lips dry and hands trembling, her bare feet whispered across the moonbeam-lit wooden floor as she ran down the hallway. She prayed the shadows would hide her as she hugged the cool walls on her descent to the second floor, forcing her cowardly feet forward step-by-step.
When the longcase clock in the Grand Hall began to chime, she stopped to take quick, shallow breaths, keenly listening for any sleepless companions in the night.
What if she was too late? What if the earl had not returned yet? Too late for a change of heart. A spur of righteousness lit her heels and with frantic archangels beating in her heart, Patience began her secret advance towards the enemy.
As she crept down the long corridor in the west wing, she noted the ornate pillars standing sentinel outside every other door down the hallway, which would provide a perfect refuge if needed. Luckily, nothing disturbed the night. Wax candles nestled in their wall sconces flickered from the slight breeze through the open window at the end of the hallway. The dim light slightly illuminated the path to the earl’s door.
Stealthily she continued on, her palms dampened, as she moved closer, four doors, then three doors away. Not far from his suite of rooms, she could see a light under his door. Was success near at hand or was disappointment about to send her scurrying back to bed? On tiptoe, she crossed the hallway to his door to listen.
All quiet. At the point of deciding whether to wish for better luck tomorrow, someone made the choice for her. Heavy footsteps thudded on the stairs heading her way. The only escape available was a nearby door. She fervently hoped she had done something good lately to warrant an unoccupied room and a place to hide.
Patience sprang for the door, jerked it open, and then almost slammed it shut, her nightdress and robe flying about her ankles. She pressed her back to the door, holding her mouth with one hand to muffle her breathing. Thankfully, no indignant person leapt from the large tester bed. She leaned against the door and listened as the footsteps continued past her door and the earl's rooms.
Who could that have been? If it was the captain, why had he not stopped?
Putting a hand to her heart to calm herself, Patience peered into the room, her eyes adjusting to the moonlight laced faintly through the window. She slowly and cautiously circled a long chaise longue in the darkened room while holding out her left hand to guide herself to the wall, which she thought must adjoin the earl's room.
She leaned an ear to the silk damask wall and with her senses tuned for sound, she strained to hear. A moment passed and then another. She held her breath and waited. Nothing. Were the walls too thick for the convenience of eavesdroppers or would-be spies?
If only she had not fallen asleep. She shook her head and sighed, regret as unfamiliar to her as poverty to a king.
Patience straightened up with an idea. Perhaps the captain had not yet arrived for their rendezvous?
A puff of wind just then wafted a ribbon of white curtains into the room. The upper housemaid must have forgotten to close the window.
The window. Might she be able to hear something if the earl’s windows remained open? Not willing to give up yet, she hurried across the room. In her haste, she stubbed her toe on a small chest at the end of the bed. A knuckle in her mouth helped to stifle a moan as she rubbed her sore toe while hopping on one foot. Clumsy must be my middle name.
Had anyone heard the noise? After a few uneasy minutes and no one barged into the room, she sat on the chest in relief, her toe still throbbing. All remained quiet, though she did not want to examine exactly how long her luck or the silence would last. Her heart might give out before then.
At last, when she felt she could move safely, she limped to the window and drew aside the white curtains. Clouds paraded past the moon dulling its white light. The night offered damp possibilities as Patience contemplated her next move.
When she stuck her head out the window, she discovered the earl’s windows were still open. Her moment of glee was cut short quicker than wind to a flame upon realizing the distance seemed too great to learn anything of value.
She perched on the windowsill, her nightdress and wrap smoothed underneath her, her toes curling against the cold stone, her chin resting on her hand.
Disappointing. It was times like these that Patience Letitia Mandeley had no idea what she was doing. She was not normally the adventurous type, but she had to do something to help Rupert.
Patience gazed across the sprawling lawn and neatly trimmed gardens of the estate and contemplated her situation. Perhaps the distance to the earl’s window was not as far as it seemed. She looked below and spied a stone balustrade running the entire length of the house. The balustrade appeared to be about two feet in width. Strong enough to stand on? There was only one way to find out.
She grasped her nightdress and wrap closer to her body, and with a deep breath she precariously crawled out the window onto the ledge a few feet beneath her. For a fearful minute, her feet dangled in the air as her toes sought purchase on the narrow shelf. Her luck held as her feet touched the hard, cold surface.
She held the window ledge in a firm grasp and tested the balustrade. It appeared to hold, even though it was designed more for an ornamental purpose than a functional one.
Her cheeks felt warm from her exertions as she tried to still her shaking hands. Reluctantly, she released her slippery grasp from the windowsill and slid her hands down the rough stone wall. Between both windows there was nothing to hold on to but the uneven surface of rough stone.
Eyes closed, she carefully maneuvered her body around so that her back fit snugly against the stone wall.
She stopped to reward her efforts and regain her fortitude, if not her courage. The ground appeared exceedingly far away, and it would take only one slip-
She made up her mind only to concentrate only on the ledge and not look beyond it. Grasping the raspy edges of the stones blindly with touch as her only guide, Patience started to walk sideways along the side of the house. The distance was farther than she had initially determined, but by a tentative step and slide crawl she felt her way over to the earl's windows.
A chair scraping the floor stopped her progress.
What was happening? Was there anyone with the earl? Her heart pounded in her ears, and she suddenly felt quite ill.
This is too dangerous. I shall never make a spy.